Spotlight on Teacher Professional Learning

Teachers talking in the hallway

When teachers learn, students learn. Because of this, school systems invest in professional learning experiences for teachers, such as workshops, learning communities, and instructional coaching. For decades, AIR has conducted studies of teacher professional learning and helped others use evidence to develop, implement, test, and scale professional learning programs. 

Using Experiments to Assess Impact

In the late 1990s, AIR conducted a landmark study of federally funded professional learning programs. Using a national sample, researchers identified several features of professional learning experiences that were associated with changes in instruction.

AIR then examined those features in a series of experiments, using treatment and comparison groups to determine whether programs with these promising features affected teachers and their students.

Experiments led by AIR across the next 20 years advanced the field’s thinking about what does and does not work. For example, a series of three large-scale experiments challenged prevailing views about how to design professional learning that is content-focused.

While doing this work, AIR published a widely-cited article on methods that helped the field use experiments to study the impact of teacher professional learning programs. 

Leveraging the Best Evidence

In the last decade, the number of impact studies focused on teacher professional learning programs has grown. To help the field learn from the evidence base, AIR conducts systematic meta-analyses that seek to identify what makes programs work.

A key meta-analysis focused on 40 impact studies that used classroom practice as an outcome measure. It demonstrated the importance of individualized support (e.g., instructional coaching) and hands-on, active learning activities. A more recent meta-analysis pooled studies to determine how well program features recommended in national standards for professional learning predict impacts on classroom practice and student achievement

Identifying Programs that Are Scalable and Effective

To benefit a large share of schools and students, programs have to address deeply-felt needs in the field—in school systems. Programs that do so have the potential to spread and achieve impact on a large scale, if they are effective.

The most direct way our work improves student outcomes is by identifying programs that are scalable and effective. We also help researchers and providers figure out how to scale proven programs by adapting them to align to school systems’ needs while still preserving the active ingredients—the elements that make them effective.

AIR works with many national providers, such as TeachingLab, The Danielson Group, and National Writing Project. Some of the most important foci in our work for the field are:

Streamlined, high-quality programs. Some programs have impacts but take teachers very little time (e.g., programs that take teachers 20 hours or fewer, spread across a year). For example, an AIR experiment demonstrated an impact from small amounts of carefully designed feedback on teaching and instructional leadership. AIR researchers explain that they are eager to advance research on streamlined, high-quality programs because of their cost-effectiveness and convenience for educators, which makes them scalable.

Programs that leverage learning technologies. New technologies continue to create possibilities for professional learning programs that are effective and scalable. For example, AIR developed and pilot tested a program that uses classroom simulation technology to help math teachers learn to engage students in math content using questions and classroom dialogue. Teachers are increasingly participating in professional learning online or in blended formats, which can increase convenience and reduce costs (e.g., travel time).

Programs that support teacher workforce outcomes. Especially since 2020, many districts want to reduce stress and burnout among teachers. Some professional learning programs have the potential to improve teacher self-efficacy and make them feel better about their jobs. For example, AIR recently found that an instructional coaching program had a measurable, positive impact on teachers’ enthusiasm about teaching

Making a Difference

We share our lessons learned with the field through academic journals, news media, and publications read regularly by superintendents and other education leaders. To further reach those who influence teacher professional learning, AIR partners with intermediary organizations with high visibility in the field, such as Learning Forward and the Research Partnership for Professional Learning.