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Professional Development

Frequently Asked Questions

What is professional development?

There are many definitions of professional development. One definition is:

Further study undertaken during employment by a person trained and educated in a profession, sometimes at the initiative of the employer, but also through voluntary attendance at conferences, workshops, seminars, or enrollment in post-graduate courses, particularly important in professions that have a rapidly changing knowledge base (Reitz, 2002).

Professional development has also been defined as a process that increases the life-long learning capacity of community members. This process promotes both high standards of academic achievement and responsible citizenship for all students (Michigan State Board of Education, 2000).

Professional development activities and training may cover personal development, continuing education, in-service education, study groups, and mentoring. (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory [NCREL], n.d.).


What does the federal government have to say about professional development?

Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110) defines in detail the nature and scope of professional development from the point of view of the federal government. This legislation makes clear the need for professional development that is "high-quality, sustained, intensive, and classroom-focused" (Sec 34 (A)(v)(I)) and specifically notes that this does not include "one-day or short-term workshops or conferences" (34)(A)(v)(II). The complete definition of professional development in the No Child Left Behind Act is located at

In the past, most school-based professional development activities were attended only by classroom teachers. However, it is important that all people whose actions affect students be included in a school district's professional development activities, including regular and special education classroom teachers, school administrators, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, cooks, and bus drivers.


What are the characteristics of high-quality professional development?

The National Staff Development Council (2001) revised standards for staff (professional) development ( comprises 12 standards, divided into three categories: context standards, process standards, and content standards.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has as its mission the advancement of the quality of teaching and learning through establishment of high standards for what teachers should know and be able to do; the provision of a national voluntary system of certification for teachers who meet these high standards; and advocating related education reforms. The NBPTS has five core principles, each of which has implications for the design and delivery of high-quality professional development opportunities. These principles include the following:

  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. Teachers are members of learning communities. (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, n.d., Policy Position section, para. 1-13).

People responsible for designing and delivering professional development should be sure that one or more of these principles is at the heart of each opportunity or program.


Does professional development really improve the quality of teaching?

Finley, Marble, Copeland, Ferguson, and Alderete (2000) found that high-quality professional development experiences resulted in teachers having a better understanding of how curriculum, instruction, and assessment fit together to improve student learning results. The Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education [SPeNSE] (Westat, 2002) found that special education teachers who had recently completed professional development experiences covering a wide range of identified topics scored higher on an index of teacher quality than teachers whose professional development covered fewer topics. Teachers who viewed their recent professional development experiences as high-quality and relevant to their work also had higher scores on the teacher quality index (Westat, 2002, para. 3).


How should professional development opportunities be evaluated?

Guskey (1998) offers 12 guidelines for effective evaluation of professional development:

  1. Clarify the intended goals.
  2. Assess the value of the goals.
  3. Analyze the context.
  4. Estimate the program's potential to meet the goals.
  5. Determine how the goals can be assessed.
  6. Outline strategies for gathering evidence.
  7. Gather and analyze evidence on participants' reactions.
  8. Gather and analyze evidence on participants' learning.
  9. Gather and analyze evidence of organizational support and change.
  10. Gather and analyze evidence on participants' use of new knowledge and skills.
  11. Gather and analyze evidence on student learning outcomes.
  12. Prepare and present evaluation reports. (pp. 41-43).

It is important to keep in mind the goals of professional development when designing an evaluation plan. In the end, student learning is what matters, and professional development initiatives will be judged in terms of whether they achieve this result (Miller, 2001).


What are some of the alternatives to traditional delivery of professional development?

A growing trend in professional development is the development of professional communities of learners or communities of practice. In a school that is a professional community of learners, teachers, administrators, and staff members engage in a continuous process of seeking out learning opportunities, sharing what they've learned, and acting on this new knowledge in order to enhance their effectiveness so that students will benefit (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory [SEDL], 1997).

There are five attributes shared by professional communities of learners (SEDL, 1997):

  1. Supportive and shared leadership: Teachers, administrators, and other school staff members see themselves as continuously learning together, and as sharing leadership within the school.
  2. Collective creativity: People at all levels in the school organization work together creatively, using their shared insights, to create new learning conditions for students.
  3. Shared values and vision: Building on their shared values, staff develop a shared vision of what is important for their school, with a focus on student learning. This vision then serves as a guidepost for future decisions.
  4. Supportive conditions: Supportive conditions include such things as time to meet and talk; physical proximity of staff to one another; teacher empowerment, including participation in the selection and hiring of new teachers; adequate resources; policies and administrators that promote collaboration and learning; and an atmosphere of respect and trust.
  5. Shared personal practice: In an atmosphere of respect and trust, teachers are able to help each other by visiting each other's classrooms and providing helpful, non-evaluative feedback. Teachers share their experiences of what has worked well in their classroom, and what hasn't.

One example of a structure for a professional community of learners is known as Critical Friends Groups, a process developed by the National School Reform Faculty at the Harmony School Education Center ( Critical Friends Groups are designed to provide the time and structure needed to promote professional growth linked to student performance.

Communities of practice emerged as a concept in business, but are increasingly common in the field of education. Communities of practice are "groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and a passion for a joint enterprise" (Wenger & Snyder, 2001, What are Communities of Practice? section, para. 1). These groups are typically established around a particular issue, and focus on improving practice to achieve positive change.


How can professional development support collaboration between special education and general education teachers?

Collaboration between special and general education teachers is critical if students are to meet high standards. Professional development activities should bring these teachers together and help them find new and better ways to work together. Collaboration has been defined as a relationship entered into to achieve common goals that "includes a commitment to: a definition of mutual relationships and goals; a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility; mutual authority and accountability for success; and sharing of resources and rewards" (Mattesich & Monsey, 1992, p. 7). Accomplishing this requires professional development that brings together special and general education teachers for joint training, extended discussion, and cooperative planning.

Ripley (1997) recommends that schools and districts provide staff development opportunities for teachers and administrators to learn about cooperative teaching and to develop an effective, supportive professional culture that goes beyond improving each teacher's individual classroom practice. Grant (1996) notes, "effective programs in professional development are inextricably linked to building a professional culture in schools, one that supports qualities of reflection and collaboration in the context of action" (Beyond the Prevalent Training Paradigm section, para. 5). Universities can play an important role in preparing education professionals for collaborative work. The Interprofessional/Transition Education Program is a project at the University of Kansas ( that provides interprofessional training opportunities to student educators and professionals from the special education, social work, guidance and counseling school psychology, occupational therapy, and speech and language.


Why is it often difficult for teachers to collaborate?

Educators who seek to collaborate face a number of challenges. These include conceptual barriers (as when educators see their roles differently), pragmatic barriers (difficulties finding the needed time and resources for collaboration), attitudinal barriers (such as fear of trying a new approach), and professional barriers (resulting from lack of preparation to work together as a team) (Johnston, Tulbert, & Sebastian, 2001). To address these barriers, professional development should include information on team-building, defining roles, negotiation skills, and specific collaboration strategies to enhance student learning. In addition, administrators must ensure that teachers have the time and resources needed to collaborate successfully.


How can professional development support school/community collaboration?

Teachers, school administrators, families, employers, and community agencies need to learn how to work together to improve education and transition for youth. However, this kind of collaboration is not easy because it involves communicating and working across different organizational cultures that have different core values and goals. Skills needed include "talking and listening across cultural and educational boundaries, negotiating, strategic planning, interviewing, planning and chairing meetings, having productive parent-teacher conferences, and building consensus about the ends-and-means of education" (Davies, 1997, Recommendation Three section, para. 1). The responsibility for educating teachers about school/community collaboration belongs to schools and school districts, because few teachers have been well-prepared for collaboration during their schooling (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 2002).

Resources are available to help teachers collaborate with employers and community resources to facilitate transition. In the area of school/community collaboration, Ryan (2001) provides information on a variety of programs that help teachers work with community resources to promote successful transition for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.


What should administrators be doing to support high-quality professional development?

Without clear and consistent administrative support, few professional development efforts will succeed. Barriers to the implementation of good professional development programs include inadequate staff time for professional development during the work week; too few blocks of time available for more lengthy professional development activities; and too much locally- or state-required professional development that is of low impact (Hassel, 1999). Administrators can address these barriers in many ways; some require additional funding but others do not. Options include converting current class planning time to time for team planning and problem solving; using regular staff meeting times for professional development; finding creative ways to cover classrooms for short professional development activities; and teaming with other schools or districts to reduce the cost of professional development (pp. 55-56).



The following sources were cited in this Frequently Asked Questions section. For additional research and resources, see our links to other pages on this topic below.

NOTE: The icon, PDF document, indicates that the resource is linked to a PDF file and requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to view. The icon, Microsoft Word document, indicates that the resource is linked to a Microsoft Word file.

PDF document American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (2002). Preparing teachers to work with students with disabilities: Possibilities and challenges for special and general teacher education. Available in PDF (300k, 16 pages). Retrieved from

Davies, D. (1997, February). Partnerships for student success: What we have learned about policies to increase student achievement through school partnerships with families and communities. Parent News. Retrieved from

Finley, S., Marble, S., Copeland, G., Ferguson, C., & Alderete, K. (2000). Professional development and teachers' construction of coherent instructional practices: A synthesis of experiences in five sites. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved from

Grant, C. M. (1996). Professional development in a technological age: New definitions, old challenges, new resources. In TERC (Ed.), Technology infusion and school change: Perspectives and practices. Retrieved from

Guskey, T. R. (1998). The age of our accountability. Journal of Staff Development, 19(4), 36-44. Retrieved from

Johnston, S. S., Tulbert, B. L., & Sebastian, J. P. (2000). Vocabulary development: A collaborative effort for teaching content vocabulary [Electronic version]. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(5), 311-315. Retrieved from

Mattesich, P. W., & Monsey, B. R. (1992). Collaboration: What makes it work: A review of research literature on factors influencing successful collaboration. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Michigan State Board of Education (2000). Professional development definition and standards. Available in PDF (20k, 4 pages). Retrieved from 2 AM Lab/C08_MIStand.pdf

Miller, L. (2001, Fall). Mentoring: It's good for the profession! The Trillium, pp. 3-4. Ontario, CA: The Ontario Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The National Staff Development Council (2001). NSDC standards for staff development. Retrieved from

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110). Retrieved from

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (n.d.). Professional development for teachers. Retrieved from

Reitz, J. M. (2002). ODLIS: Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Retrieved from

Ripley, S. (1997). Collaboration between general and special education teachers. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED409317) Retrieved from

Ryan, A. (Ed.) (2001). Strengthening the safety net: How schools can help youth with emotional and behavioral needs complete their high school education and prepare for life after school. Burlington: University of Vermont, College of Education and Social Services, School Research Office. Retrieved from

Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (1997). Professional learning communities: What are they and why are they important? Retrieved from

TransCen (1999). How to facilitate workplace mentoring: A guide for employers to support workers. Rockville, MD: Author.

Wenger, E., & Snyder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 139-45.

Westat (2002). SPeNSE Summary sheet: Local administrators' role in promoting teacher quality. Retrieved from

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