5. Prepare pragmatically

Preparing for effective professional development includes anticipating and preparing for likely challenges.

5.1 Attrition and attention

Teacher attrition undermines professional development. High turnover made it impossible to demonstrate an impact in a number of recent studies (see, for example, Kraft and Blazar, 2016; Garet et al., 2016; see also Fryer, 2017, for principals): in one study 22 of 45 teachers left during the two year course (Garet et al., 2011). This reflects a broader problem facing professional development leaders (and the system more broadly): high teacher turnover. Even in the schools serving the most well-off quintile of secondary students in England, 16% of teachers leave each year (17% in primary); in those serving the least well-off quintile, 22% leave each year (21% in primary). Professional development can also suffer from waning commitment. Teachers may have other priorities, leadership may change direction (see, for example, Jacob, Hill and Corey, 2017). Multi-year PD even had a negative effect by those picking up in Year 2. In the longer-term, by providing better professional development, teacher educators should be able to combat a major source of teacher stress and a big barrier to retention: teachers feeling unsupported and unable to meet the challenges they face, thereby reducing the challenge of retention.

In their design, teacher educators will need to:

  • Create professional development which challenges teachers who have been retained, but helps induct new teachers into the school.
  • Consider how professional development can achieve a significant impact as rapidly as possible, frontloading the most powerful learning.

In their delivery, they may seek to maintain teacher participation and enthusiasm by intentionally designing aspects of professional development to:

  • Show their relevance and value to teachers
  • Highlight and celebrate teachers’ progress
  • Be explicit about the choices they have made and the reasons for them

Teacher educators must plan to cope with high levels of teacher turnover, while also planning to reduce that turnover, both in their work and in schools more generally.

5.2 Systems and coherence

Professional development is just one aspect of a range of factors affecting teacher practice (Cambridge Assessment, 2017; Grol and Grimshaw, 2003). Educational systems are complex – have multiple moving parts – and resilient – they return to their original form. Individual change initiatives often fail because they are viewed as individual changes when in fact they are tied together: a change in assessment must be tied to a change in teacher knowledge, professional development, accountability and so on. Change therefore requires constant monitoring and fine-tuning and the search for curriculum coherence through aligning a range of factors (Cambridge Assessment, 2017). For example, teachers and students confused about an intervention or not following the procedures they were supposed to follow (Smith and Gorard, 2005).

Effective systems link the people, evaluation structures and professional development needed to create change, so that incentives and support is aligned. International comparison highlights the importance of trained people, with professional progression, access to support and networks and clear responsibilities; evaluation which works and a systemic approach – all with the time required to achieve; tight on best practices of CPD, not on the details of how schools do it (Jensen et al., 2016). This is why professional development with “precise training and curriculum materials” which attends to many of the factors affecting professional development seems more powerful than more general professional development (Fryer, 2016). Conversely, ‘stuck’ schools not improving were not linking professional development to student learning and suffered incoherence between leadership, vision, actions, systems and purposes (CUREE, 2015). This call to fit curriculum and training materials to teachers’ needs has been echoed in discussion of failed professional development efforts (Jacob, Hill and Corey, 2017).

This week…

We’ll be releasing Harry’s Paper on Designing Professional Development for Teachers in full – stay tuned!


Cambridge Assessment (2017). A Cambridge Approach to improving education: Using international insights to manage complexity

CUREE. (2015). Gaining and Sustaining Momentum: Accelerating progress in schools project. Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education.

Fryer, R. (2016) The Production of Human Capital in Developed Countries: Evidence from 196 Randomized Field Experiments. NBER Working Paper No. 22130.

Fryer, R. (2017).  Management and student achievement: evidence from a randomized field experiment.  NBER Working Paper No. 23437.

Garet, M., Wayne, A., Stancavage, F., Taylor, J., Eaton, M., Walters, K., Song, M., Brown, S., Hurlburt, S., Zhu, P., Sepanik, S., Doolittle, F., Warner, E., (2011) Middle School Mathematics Professional Development Impact Study: Findings After the Second Year of Implementation. Institute of Education Sciences.

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., Garrett, R., Yang, R., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Grol, R., Grimshaw, J. (2003) From best evidence to best practice: effective implementation of change in patients’ care. The Lancet, 362, 1225-1230.

Jacob, R., Hill, H., Corey, D. (2017) The Impact of a Professional Development Program on Teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, Instruction, and Student Achievement. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2016.1273411

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K. and Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems (Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy).

Kraft, M. and Blazar, D. (2016). Individualized Coaching to Improve Teacher Practice Across Grades and Subjects: New Experimental Evidence. Educational Policy.

Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (2016). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Brown University Working Paper.

Smith, E. and Gorard, S. (2005). ‘They don’t give us our marks’: the role of formative feedback in student progress. Assessment in Education 12(1), pp. 21–38.


Harry leads our Fellows course. He is a former English and history teacher and has taught internationally. He has been head of careers, history and professional development in schools and has trained teachers for Teach First, Teach for Sweden and Teach First Denmark. He has recently published Ticked Off: Checklists for Students, Teachers and School Leaders.

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean, Institute for Teaching