One Wednesday afternoon nearly a decade ago, I sat with all the other teachers at my school for a professional development (PD) workshop. Our district office had sent a representative to train us in “differentiated instruction,” an approach that provides students with different ways to access grade-level standards. The trainer placed two posters in the front of the room: one titled, “What differentiated instruction is,” the other, “What differentiated instruction is NOT.” Over the next hour, teachers worked in teams to populate these posters with phrases, and then, the workshop was over. We flooded out of the school library toward the parking lot.

District leaders must have noticed that this one-shot workshop didn’t dramatically improve our ability to differentiate because they sent another representative to do nearly the same workshop a month later. And a third the month after that.

The irony of these sessions was not lost on us. Despite a focus on improving differentiated instruction for students, the district’s approach was not differentiated according to teacher needs, and the trainers utilized only one mode of instruction for three separate sessions.

Research suggests that this experience may not be unique. In particular, studies have painted PD as unevenly impactful, costly, and unrelated to teacher needs.

However, a newer model of on-the-job support is none of these things, and burgeoning evidence suggests that one approach tried in Tennessee has meaningfully boosted student achievement — which is promising, particularly if it could be leveraged in low-performing schools.

A recent field experiment examined an approach called the Evaluation Partnership Program, which was implemented in a diverse, medium-sized district. The initiative matched teachers who were rated as low-performing on at least one skill on the state’s observation rubric with teachers who were rated as high-performing on those same skills. Pairs were encouraged to look at each other’s evaluation results, observe each other’s teaching, provide feedback, and generate strategies for improvement.

Job-embedded PD can come in many forms, but importantly, this initiative occurred as part of the teacher’s regular work, was aligned with his or her strengths and weaknesses, was ongoing, and utilized resources already in the school building — other teachers.

In schools that were randomly assigned to the initiative, initially low-performing teachers boasted much larger student achievement gains than their counterparts in schools not assigned to the program — roughly similar to the difference between being assigned a teacher with median effectiveness as opposed to a bottom quartile teacher.

These results represent just one approach in just one district, so it’s important not to yell success too early. However, the outcomes do imply that, when done well, job-embedded PD can meaningfully enhance teacher capacity in ways that ultimately improve students’ learning trajectory.

Given the promise of this initiative and others like it, district leaders might begin upgrading current PD systems. But in order for these changes to influence equity, they must be focused in schools where the need for effective teachers is greatest. Districts might consider providing greater levels of support for on-the-job development in low-performing schools.

Photo credit: Molly Roberts