The U.S. educational system invests heavily, in both time and money, in continuing education for teachers. In this article Heather Hill examines the effectiveness of two forms of teacher learning—graduate coursework and professional development.
She focuses first on graduate education. Almost half of all teachers have a master's degree. Many states allow graduate coursework to count toward recertification requirements. Some districts require teachers to complete a master's degree within several years of hiring, and many others reward it with salary increases. Education reformers often recommend requiring master's degrees. But much graduate coursework appears to be of low intellectual quality and disconnected from classroom practice. Most research finds no link between teachers' graduate degrees and student learning unless the degree is in the teacher's primary teaching field.
Hill then examines professional development. Most workshops, institutes, and study groups appear to be brief, superficial, and of marginal use in improving teaching. But it does not have to be this way, says Hill. Professional development can enhance teaching and learning if it has three characteristics. It must last several days or longer; it must focus on subject-matter-specific instruction; and it must be aligned with the instructional goals and curriculum materials in teachers' schools. Such high-quality programs do exist. But they are a tiny fraction of the nation's offerings. One problem, says Hill, is that researchers rarely evaluate carefully either local professional development or its effect on student learning. Most evaluations simply ask participants to self-report. Lacking reliable evaluations, how are teachers and district officials to choose effective programs? Clearly, much more rigorous studies are needed.
To make continuing education effective, school districts should encourage teachers to take graduate coursework that is more tightly aligned with their primary teaching assignment. And districts should select professional development programs based on evidence of their effectiveness. Finally, central planners must ensure that items on the menu of offerings closely align with district standards, curriculum materials, and assessments.