Voice from the Industry

Improving Impact: The Role of Strategic Professional Development

I'd like to challenge you to rethink the role of professional development in the products and services you offer to districts. According to several studies, school districts spend more than $10,000 on teacher professional development per teacher per year. The number is startling and, in most cases, represents a number far greater than any district budgets or believes it spends.

As providers, we understand the numbers because every solution that districts buy is required to come with some form of professional development—most of it in the form of a day or two for a new solution, whether it’s a software application, an interactive whiteboard, an assessment solution, or supplemental materials. To a teacher, it often represents another initiative on top of all the other things that are asked of their precious time. To providers, it’s either an amazing source of revenue or potentially a cost sink depending on internal resources. Often, providers outsource professional development because it’s not deemed as strategic to their business or it’s been provided for “free with order” (as an incentive to purchase).

I’m asking you to focus your professional development strategy on helping to change teacher practice. Teacher effectiveness research clearly suggests that the quality of a classroom teacher is the single most important element to a child’s success. For a number of reasons, teachers are often ill-equipped in the fundamental content and pedagogical concepts that are required as building blocks for effective teaching practice. And most of the professional development support they’re given today lacks the alignment to needs, fidelity of implementation, and scale or reach required to change practice. Professional development days are historically spread throughout the year and delivered by internal resources through one-day trainings with little-to-no follow-up. Provider PD is often outsourced, product-focused, and supported through train-the-trainer implementation. In most cases, the inch-deep and train-the-trainer approaches to professional development don’t transform practice. 

Scaling effective practice is also a significant issue. Most training takes place outside the classroom, which requires coordination of days, substitutes, trainers, and facilities. This means many initiatives take several years to reach all teachers in a given implementation, creating isolated pockets of knowledge but no systemic change in overall teacher practice. Research should dictate the model and methods for training teachers and achieving scale, but that’s rarely the case.

A research study funded by the national Department of Education reports that out of more than 1,300 studies on teacher professional development, 9 meet “What Works Clearinghouse” evidence standards. These nine studies suggest that teachers who receive substantial professional development—an average of 49 hours—can boost their students’ achievement by about 21 percentile points. A report by Linda Darling-Hammond (referencing Wei et al, 2009) says effective professional development is focused, engaging, intensive, linked to student learning, supported with coaching, and integrated with other school initiatives. She cites the need for an average of about 50 hours or more on a given topic.

Given the challenges and the evidence, how do we, as providers, deliver effective professional development to teachers and principals in a way that aligns to strategic objectives, provides the fidelity and rigor required to change instructional practice, and offers the scale required to address the needs of more than 50 million students? The only effective way to scale professional development is to leverage online learning. Online professional development can deliver 49-plus hours to teachers within 8 weeks and includes collaborative learning environments that can be supported effectively by coaching, modeling, mentoring, observation, and feedback. Online professional development works because it reduces travel costs and coordination, minimizes time out of the classroom, and allows educators to learn at their own pace. In fact, research suggests that online learning happens faster than face-to-face learning, with increased retention of the material.

As providers, there are additional considerations, such as outcomes, cost, and potential revenue. Product training doesn’t change teacher practice if teachers don’t understand the underlying principles that support the transformational product. Instructional management and assessment providers can show how to easily access data, but it’s meaningless if teachers don’t understand why data is important to differentiation and changes in instructional practice. Interactive whiteboards and clickers are meaningless if the quality of instruction doesn’t change to leverage the advanced technology tools. From an annuity standpoint, continuing to provide professional development that doesn’t transform practice, places the blame on the provider rather than the chosen approach to product implementation.

From a cost perspective, free-with-order or cost-neutral professional development approaches aren’t long-term, sustainable solutions—especially given the questionable impact. Investing in strategic professional development may be an approach to manage cost, provide differentiation, or both.

From a revenue perspective, strategic professional development may serve as a differentiator. By delivering your core value proposition at a deep level, online, you may be able to have your face-to-face experts focus on coaching, modeling, and mentoring in classrooms, thereby closing the feedback loop on effective practice. This will increase adoption, optimize internal resource deployment, and create follow-on revenue streams. If some version of low-impact professional development is necessary, think about how you charge for more effective, strategic solutions.

The benefits of incorporating online professional development as a strategic approach to changing teacher practice are clear. Think about whether you invest directly or work with a partner that has the expertise and the ability to help you scale. Regardless of whether you choose to implement strategic professional development online, offline, or as a blended model, I encourage you to focus on research-proven practice to strengthen your value proposition, your bottom line, your impact on teacher practice and, ultimately, on student achievement.


Alvin Crawford, CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems, Inc., has over 20 years of experience in education and media. He spent nearly a decade at SchoolNet, a company he helped drive from a four-person start-up to its current position as a leader in educational software solutions for school districts. At SchoolNet, Crawford held executive positions in areas including sales, marketing, product development, and business development. Crawford has also worked at Zentropy Partners, Ogilvy One, and Digitas. He holds a BS in biology from Tufts University and an MBA from the Wallace E. Carroll Graduate School of Management at Boston College.  Alvin can be reached at acrawford@kdsi.org.