Effective Professional Development

Today’s blog is about a literature review for the characteristics of effective professional development as researched by the The Learning Policy Institute. But I want to make sure that we also consider a topic that teachers need meaningful discussion around: How can we teach disadvantaged youth in a wealthy society?

I ask this questions because so many students come from impoverished communities, from dangerous neighborhoods and from trauma backgrounds. And yet the United States has one of the highest standards for living. How can we frame issues of need in a wealthy society such that a meaningful discussion ensues, and real progress is made, on behalf of everyone? The only answer is to deploy an effective professional development strategy with an agreed upon goal of equity and access where job-embedded means that these strategies work with the children we teach.

Characteristics of Effective PD

The characteristics of effective professional development grow out of the ineffective professional development that is normally experienced by many teachers. And that is not to say that many people have tried a combination of these elements when trying to provide the best professional development. But the key here is to see that all of the elements, when combined into a deeper are the most robust way to deliver effective professional development (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017):

  1. Is content focused
  2. Incorporates active learning utilizing adult learning theory
  3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  5. Provides coaching and expert support
  6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
  7. Is of sustained duration

Example: Reading Recovery

“Reading Recovery is an example of a professional development model that has demonstrated effectiveness in supporting student learning gains in dozens of studies over several decades on multiple continents. Reading Recovery was originally designed to provide individualized interventions for struggling readers in New Zealand, and has since been widely implemented in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. It was first implemented in the U.S. in 1984, and grew to serve a peak number of 152,000 students nationwide in the 2000–01 school year.”

Darling-Hammond et al., 2017

“In 2010, the Ohio State University—the U.S. seat of Reading Recovery—received a $45 million federal i3 grant to fund the expansion of Reading Recovery. The university partnered with 19 universities across the U.S. to recruit and train teachers and schools to participate in the Reading Recovery program. The i3 grant supported teacher PD for 3,747 teachers, who served 387,450 students in one-to-one lessons, classroom teaching, or small-group instruction.”

Darling-Hammond et al., 2017

Reading Recovery Theory of Change

“The Reading Recovery theory of change asserts the critical role of the teacher in identifying students’ strengths and needs, and facilitating their learning by providing appropriate opportunities to acquire and use new reading skills. The teacher’s practice is highly diagnostic and grounded in a substantial knowledge base about the learning-to-read process for diverse learners, as well as a sophisticated set of teaching skills applied in an individualized fashion for each learner. The basis of the Reading Recovery PD model is similarly informed by a very deliberate approach to acquiring and applying knowledge that is individualized to the needs of the teacher.”

Darling-Hammond et al., 2017

Reading Recovery Uses All Seven Elements of Effective PD

“To prepare teachers to play this critical role, Reading Recovery provides intensive PD that incorporates all seven of the elements of effective PD. In groups of 8 to 12, teachers complete a yearlong graduate-level training course taught by a literacy coach. This sustained training involves model lesson observation, teacher demonstration of effective teaching techniques, and frequent collaborative discussion between participants. After the training course, faculty from the partnering university support teachers in their classrooms and facilitate program implementation within their area.21 Additional, ongoing PD for these teachers includes a minimum of six sessions with a Reading Recovery teacher leader and colleagues; opportunities for interaction and collaboration with school leaders and colleagues; and ongoing access to conferences and training institutes.”

Darling-Hammond et al., 2017


“What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) ranks Reading Recovery as the most successful based on research evidence across all four outcomes — alphabetics (phonics and phonemic awareness), fluency, comprehension, and reading achievement. Among programs reviewed, Reading Recovery received the highest improvement index in reading achievement and fluency.”

Reading Recovery, 2019

EFFECTIVENESS *Reading Recovery® 18 (++) 14 (++) 27 (++) 46 (+)

Reading Recovery, 2019

A 2016 evaluation of the i3 funded initiative found that students who participated in the U.S. expansion of Reading Recovery significantly outperformed students in the control groups on measures of overall reading, reading comprehension, and decoding. Moreover, these gains were nearly three times as large as average gains for similar broad instructional interventions. This effect translates to Reading Recovery students in the study gaining an additional 1.55 months of learning compared to the national growth average for 1st graders. Of particular interest during the i3 scale-up study was the performance of English language learners (ELLs) and rural students. Results indicated that there was a similarly large positive impact on their performance. These findings suggest that the Reading Recovery PD program is capable of positively impacting student achievement on a large scale and can help drive equitable learning outcomes for ELL and rural students”

Darling-Hammond et al., 2017

The Disconnect of Professional Development

Our problem in the United States Education system is that 66% of our 3rd graders do not achieve proficiency. Without a commitment to reading proficiency, the entire system is at risk for failure. And without a strong reading recovery program, we have no way out of this hole. Effective professional development must use all of these researched characteristics of effective programs plus a focus on reading recovery plus a meaningful discussion where we frame the issues of so much need in a wealthy society.

Addressing Our Children

If so many cannot read, are we really the wealthy and successful society we claim to be? Why does professional development not address the children we have in our classrooms right now? We must connect what we teach with who we teach. Improvement waits for us to address our students and our children.


Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from EdSpeak

Discover the tools and strategies modern schools need to help their students grow.

Community Schools Reform

As a seasoned researcher of K-12 public schools and someone dedicated to improving the quality, equity, and creativity in education, I wholeheartedly support the proposal

Read More »

Subscribe to EdSpeak!

The SchoolWorks Lab Blog, connecting teaching to policy through research.