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Evidence Matters | Professional Development: Teachers As Students

Last updated June 3, 2024

By Kelly Gregory

July 8, 2024

Education—like many other professions—is ever changing. In the medical field, doctors are continually required to keep up with the newest developments in treatments available to their patients. In the legal profession, attorneys must annually complete a requisite number of continuing education hours to stay abreast of current policies. Often times, professional development in various disciplines involves attending conferences or completing courses online. But when it comes to professional development for teachers, what does it look like? And why does it matter?

For teachers, some level of professional development is a yearly requirement. In order for teachers to earn enough professional development credits to renew their teaching certificates at required intervals, they must participate in various learning activities throughout each school year. These activities might include workshops with district-level or outside consultants, online trainings in new curriculum adoptions, or continuing education courses through approved colleges or universities. However teachers choose to fulfill their professional learning requirements, it is understood that teachers must also always continue to be students themselves.

And multiple studies have shown that when teachers continue to learn—and learn well—it can have positive impacts on their students. Studies show that teacher professional development often leads to better instruction, which can in turn promote higher student achievement. In 2010, more than 1,300 studies addressing the effects of teacher professional development on student learning were reviewed as part of a report published by the Institute of Education Sciences. Overall, researchers found that when teachers participated in a sufficient amount (an average of 49 hours) of professional development, student achievement increased by approximately 29 percentage points. A paper published in 2023 by researchers at Annenberg Brown University and George Mason University describes the effects of a professional development fellowship program offered to two cohorts of teachers over the course of two school years. Researchers found that teacher participation in the fellowship substantially increased student achievement in both English/language arts and math.

But because we know that not just any professional development drives these results, what should schools and teachers be looking for when seeking continuous learning opportunities? An oft-repeated criticism of many professional development opportunities in the education world is that many offer a “one and done” approach, meaning that teachers are often left to try and absorb information in a single session and then go back to their classrooms and determine the best ways to implement that new knowledge. If meaningful learning and application of knowledge is the goal, this is an ineffective approach for many professionals. Just like their students, teachers need instruction to be structured in a way that sets them up for success.

In our next post, we will examine what research tells us about the necessary components of effective professional development for teachers, and we will then turn to a discussion of how we might ensure that more teachers have access to the kinds of quality learning that all teachers—and their students—deserve.

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Projects and Partnerships and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at