A Matter of Time: PD Frequency & Follow-Through

“Time, Time, Time…See What’s Become of Me.”

According to a 2015 report by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), teachers spend about 19 days or approximately 10% of their school year on professional development. The financial cost, according to the report is about $18,000 per teacher per year and that totals up to about $8 billion for just the 50 largest school districts in the US. But my focus for this post is not on the dollars, but the time. Our prompt for this module was to examine what the ideal technology rich professional learning program looks like and I chose to focus on “when.” If we are truly to “design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment” (ISTE coaching standard 4 indicator b), we should probably consider how often we should do it, what kind of follow-through we might need, and how technology can help us facilitate it.

It’s not a Question of Time…

I partially addressed the issue of wasted time and money in PD in a previous post on respect, but for this post I think I need to focus specifically on how schools and teachers use time to further professional development. The time teachers spend on PD is crucial, and TNTP’s conclusion on how much time, exactly, is spent on teacher improvement is shocking – especially given how little benefit it seems to be yielding. According to their study, there is almost connection between the amount of time spent in professional development and teacher improvement (view full report here). This can be discouraging given the number of hours and dollars spent on this very process each year. Honestly, if we were to grade teacher PD based on the outcome it has on teacher effectiveness (see graphic below), it would be a dismal failure.

TNTP, 2015

And time is expensive! Allison Gulamhussein, in her report for the Center for Public Education (CPE), points out that, “the largest cost of effective professional development is actually teachers’ time.” But we can hardly do without it. Gulamhussein goes on to  explain that, “effective professional development programs require anywhere from 50 to 80 hours of instruction, practice, and coaching before teachers arrive at mastery.” This is an interesting number given that TNTP recognizes “If we consider only time mandated directly by district policy through development days and release time set aside for teacher improvement efforts, the time ranges from 39 to 74 hours per school year.” Thus the amount of time allocated and mandated by schools for professional development matches – almost perfectly – the amount of time necessary to master effective PD programs!

So it’s not a lack of time. Teacher professional development programs are not missing the mark because schools aren’t allocating enough time – or even money. There is something fundamentally lacking in the WAY teacher PD is conducted that’s leading to its ineffectiveness.

It’s How You Use It.

If it’s not a question of time, the question then becomes how do we use the time allotted to professional development more effectively? If the goal is to help teachers implement new learning strategies, then perhaps some of that time could be spent specifically with teachers, in their subject areas, working towards helping them implement that goal. Gulanhussein cities studies by Bush (1984) and Truesdale (2003) and explains, “When professional development merely describes a skill to teachers, only 10 percent can transfer it to their practice; however, when teachers are coached through the awkward phase of implementation, 95 percent can transfer the skill” (Gulamhussein). Teachers have to get over the hurtles that awkward phase presents. If they don’t get past it, they can’t succeed. The PD process for teachers must be continuous. It cannot be a single session or a single day; it must be a process of improvement. This fits with Gulamhussein’s conclusions in her report for the CPE.

  1. Most teachers only experience traditional, workshop-based professional development, even though research shows it is ineffective.
  2. The largest struggle for teachers is not learning new approaches to teaching but implementing them
  3. In order to truly change practices, professional development should occur over time and preferably be ongoing.
  4. Coaches/mentors are found to be highly effective in helping teachers implement a new skill.
  5. Professional development is best delivered in the context of the teacher’s subject area.
  6. Research on effective critical thinking strategies is lacking, but teachers don’t have to wait and can lead the way by establishing professional learning communities.

Gulamhussein’s third, fourth, and fifth points all indicate a longer process for professional development (and, to some extent, the sixth as well). Teachers are exposed to ways to improve their craft, but then there must be follow-through, whether that is through coaching or PLC’s or some other device, PD is a process. And that will take time – not necessarily more time, but maybe the same amount of time used differently.

TNTP’s research also seems to support this approach. While their survey generally found PD to be ineffective, they DID find a school where PD seems to be working – at least working better than in most places. This school system is a midsize charter management organization (CMO) that operates in several cities. According to the report, the CMO School had several approaches which made it different:

  1. Clear Roles and Responsibilities for PD
  2. A Culture of High Expectations and Continuous Learning
  3. Regular Feedback and Practice
  4. A More Strategic Investment in Growth (TNTP)

Once again, we can see support for a continuous model of PD. Points 2 and 3 directly relate to sustained professional development and point 4 implies it at an administrative level. In their explanation of these elements, TNTP explicitly addresses this:

“We believe school systems need to make a more
fundamental shift in mindset and define “helping teachers improve” not just in terms of providing them with a package of discrete experiences and treatments, but with information, conditions and a culture that facilitate growth and normalize continuous improvement.”

Culture can be hard to quantify, but it would seem that promoting and supporting continuous teacher development would lead to a culture of improvement. And as stated earlier, this is not a matter of more time, but rather, being more intentional on how that time is spent. Again, the CMO example supports this.

“Overall, teachers in the CMO report spending slightly more time on development activities than teachers in the other districts we studied (22 hours per month on average compared to 16 to 19 hours elsewhere). However, those hours are spent on activities that appear to provide substantively greater opportunities for individualized support that focuses on specific development goals—and they occur within a culture that expects continual improvement.” (TNTP)

One final example of support for follow-through in PD comes from Dr. Natalie Saaris at Actively Learn. She too provides several ways to improve teacher PD and like the others, she also believes that PD is a process:

  1. Start every PD session sharing the student outcomes that you are trying to improve
  2. Make sure your session isn’t a lecture
  3. Provide bite-sized learning opportunities outside of formal PD days
  4. Provide guided time for teachers to learn from each other
  5. Create regular opportunities for low-stakes feedback

Saaris’s third, fourth, and fifth points all echo the call for more procedural approach to PD and in the explanation of her third point, she elaborates on why it’s necessary:

Teachers spend a handful of days in marathon-long sessions of workshops and meetings with the expectation that they can improve their practice in short, intensive bursts of learning. But this isn’t how learning happens.

Like students, teachers need learning to be an ongoing process that builds over time and that gets to depth. A high-impact practice like formative assessment cannot be mastered in an hour-long session; teachers need to understand its purpose, how it fits into their instructional framework, how they can assess its impact and use it to inform their instruction. These are all complex questions that merit sustained investigation.

I like Dr. Saaris’s phrasing here, “sustained investigation.” I believe that’s what we do in PD – or at least, what we should do. I also appreciate the direct connection she makes between what teachers ask of their students and what we should ask of teachers. Education is more an more about exploring personalized, self-directed experiences of learning. Educating educators should be the same, if not more so. Some of this goes to respect, or lack thereof, for the profession, but some of it goes to how we use the time we have.

And Technology?

Given that this is an EdTech blog post, a fair question may be, so where does technology fit in with this? To answer that question, I would look to another blog post I made about coaching and scaffolding. In it, I looked at Liz Kolb’s Triple E framework and how that could be used in coaching teachers. I believe the same framework applies to teacher PD.  The Triple E Framework is a digital age best practice and “digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment” are digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment whether they are for students in the classroom or teachers in the process of improving their craft. Take the summary chart below and switch “students” with “teachers” and “everyday life (lives)” with “classrooms” and you get the basic idea.

Technology allows us to Engage in learning goals, Enhance learning goals, and Extend learning goals. Those goals may be in our classrooms or they may be a part of our professional development, but  in either case, they are part of a process. What’s remarkable is not that this is true, but that it’s taken us so long to see that this applies to our teachers’ professional development as well as our students’ general education.

Three Years of Professional Development

I’ve been a teacher now for about 27 years. According to TNTP, that means I’ve spent nearly 3 years of my career on professional development. Sadly, I think much of that falls into the “ineffective” category. Not that I haven’t improved as a teacher (because I like to think that I have), and not that the schools I’ve been a part of didn’t value professional development (because I like to think they did), but I think we, as a profession, have just been doing it wrong for a long, long time.  We have the time for PD. We have the money (mostly) for PD. Let’s be conscious of how we use that time and let’s promise not to waste another second of it.


Gulamhussein, Allison (2013). “Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability.” Center for Public Education.  Retrieved from: http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/research/teaching-teachers-effective-professional-development

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Kolb, Liz. “Triple E Framework.” Retrieved from: https://www.tripleeframework.com/

Saaris, Natalie (October 5, 2017). “5 Ways to Transform PD with Best Practices for Learning.” Actively Learn. Retrieved from: https://www.activelylearn.com/post/transform-pd-best-practices

TNTP (The New Teacher Project – August 4, 2015). “The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development.” Retrieved from: https://tntp.org/publications/view/the-mirage-confronting-the-truth-about-our-quest-for-teacher-development