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Toward Better Teaching: Professional Development in 1993-94 / Executive Summary

Executive Summary

Teachers' professional development has become a major focus of school reform initiatives as many policymakers, researchers, and other members of the education community have come to believe that further gains in teacher effectiveness and student achievement require significant changes in teachers' knowledge and teaching practices. Teacher professional development traditionally has been viewed as a local responsibility, but in recent years, the federal government and many state governments have assumed a more active role than in the past. At the federal level, a National Goal has been added, a set of principles for effective professional development has been articulated by the U.S. Department of Education, and funding for professional development activities has been provided through a variety of mechanisms. States' involvement with professional development has traditionally focused on funding, mandating the amount of in-service time and regulating recertification. Now, many states are taking a more active role in influencing the focus, scope, and quality of professional development as well.

In the context of these changes, this report uses the 1993-94 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) to examine who determines the content of professional development programs, the formats in which professional development activities are provided, the rate of participation in activities on certain topics and the amount of time for which teachers were engaged, the ways in which schools or districts supported teachers' participation in professional development activities, and teachers' perceptions of the impact of the activities in which they participated.

Determining the Content of Professional Development Programs

Responsibility for determining the content of in-service professional development was shared in 1993-94. When asked how much influence they thought various groups had in determining the content of in-service programs in their schools, 72 percent of public school principals thought that they had a great deal of influence, 71 percent thought that teachers had a great deal of influence, and 66 percent thought that school district staff had a great deal of influence. Smaller percentages thought that State Departments of Education and school boards had a great deal of influence (21 percent in each case). Principals in states that mandated specific amounts of time for professional development and required districts to have professional development plans were among those most likely to ascribe a great deal of influence to the State Department of Education. Teachers were less likely than principals to think that teachers had a great deal of influence: about three-quarters of all teachers thought that they had at least some influence over the content of in-service professional development programs, with 31 percent thinking they had a great deal of influence.

Format of Professional Development

Participation in formal teacher induction programs is increasing in the public sector: 56 percent of public school teachers in their first 3 years of teaching reported having participated in such a program, compared with 44 percent of those with 4-9 years of experience and 17 percent of those with 10-19 years of experience. Private school teachers in their first 3 years of teaching were less likely to have participated in a formal teacher induction program (28 percent), but assistance to new teachers in private schools, which tend to be smaller than public schools, may be more informal.

In 1993-94, almost all teachers (96 percent of public school teachers and 91 percent of private school teachers) reported having participated in some professional development activity since the end of the last school year. Participation in district- and school-sponsored workshops and other in-service programs was particularly high, reflecting the mandatory nature of much of this type of professional development.

Participation rates varied somewhat with teacher characteristics, but the sizes of the differences were relatively small. In the public sector, full-time teachers appear to rely more on their schools and part-time teachers more on professional associations for professional development, a pattern that may reflect the opportunities available to them. In both the public and private sectors, teachers with 10 or more years of experience were more likely than new teachers to participate in school- or district- (or affiliation-) sponsored programs and in professional growth activities sponsored by professional associations. New teachers, on the other hand, were more likely than the experienced teachers to enroll in college courses in their subject field, suggesting that they are focusing their professional development time on earning advanced degrees or credentials or, if they are not fully certified, taking courses they need for certification.

Content and Duration of Professional Development Activities

Approximately one-half of all teachers had participated in professional development programs since the end of the last school year on at least one of three topics associated with recent school reform efforts: uses of educational technology for instruction, student assessment, and cooperative learning in the classroom. In addition, almost two-thirds had participated in professional development programs on methods of teaching in their fields, and 29 percent had undertaken in-depth study in their subject. Most of these programs lasted one day or less.

Rates of participation in professional development programs reflect a variety of factors, including teachers' need for help, the availability of resources, the priority that schools and districts give to professional development generally, the extent to which training is voluntary or mandatory, and teachers' motivation to participate voluntarily. The SASS data show some variation by school and teacher characteristics. For example, in both public and private schools, teachers with at least 10 years of experience, who are less likely to have learned computer skills while in college, were more likely than teachers in their first 3 years of teaching to have participated in professional development on the uses of educational technology for instruction. In the public sector, state variation was evident as well, and some of this variation appears to be related to specific initiatives that some states have implemented. For example, rates of participation by public school teachers in professional development programs on student assessment were particularly high in a few of the states that were developing or implementing new student assessment initiatives.

Support for Professional Development

Effective professional development is dependent to a large extent upon institutional and financial support of teachers' professional development and a school culture that nurtures teacher learning. SASS asked teachers whether they had received various types of support for professional development activities in their main assignment fields. The most common types of support were release time from teaching (received by 47 percent of all teachers) and time for professional development built into their schedules (received by 40 percent). In addition, since the end of the previous school year, 24 percent of all teachers had been reimbursed for travel expenses, 24 percent had their tuition and fees paid, and 31 percent had received professional growth credits for professional development activities related to their main assignment fields. However, 23 percent of all teachers had received none of these types of support. The percentages of teachers receiving the various types of support varied by sector and school and district characteristics. In the public sector, the percentages also varied by state, reflecting varying state involvement in professional development.

Recently developed principles for effective professional development emphasize the importance of a collaborative environment where teachers and administrators develop common goals, share ideas, and work together to achieve their goals. Eleven percent of all teachers strongly agreed that their principal talked with them frequently about instructional practices, 37 percent strongly agreed that there was a great deal of cooperative effort among the staff members, and 39 percent strongly agreed that they made a conscious effort to coordinate their courses with other teachers.

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