Developing Effective Teachers Through Targeted Professional Development

This month, the Middle School Matters Institute Blog focuses on why effective teachers are important for middle grade students and the role that professional development plays in developing and supporting effective teachers.

Marcia Kosanovich, Ph.D., Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University (Research Perspective)
Erica Rodriguez, Dean of Instruction, Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School in Pharr, Texas (Practice Perspective)

The Research Perspective

A large body of research demonstrates that effective teachers who implement and sustain proven practices are the foundation of middle grade reform. In fact, other school reform elements are unlikely to succeed unless a school is staffed with effective teachers.

The Middle School Matters Field Guide outlines various research-based strategies for recruiting and developing effective teachers. Because many school districts struggle with finding and hiring teachers that are already well-versed in research-based practices, classroom management, and data-based decision-making, it is essential that schools and districts understand how to develop effective teachers through quality professional development.

The underlying theory of professional development is that enhancing teacher knowledge and skills changes instructional practice, which in turn increases student achievement (Yoon, Duncan, Lee, Scarloss, & Shapley, 2007). Professional development can encourage and support teachers to adopt and implement, with fidelity, research-based practices that accelerate and increase student achievement (Kosanovich, Reed, & Miller, 2010).

Effective Professional Development Practices

Even though we do not have all the answers about effective face-to-face professional development, there is a consensus in the literature about “best practices” of professional development. Below, we describe four such practices.

1. Institute frequent and ongoing site-based professional development. Teachers are more likely to implement new instructional practices well if they receive ongoing support while trying the practices in the classroom. As stated in the Center on Instruction (2006) guide Designing High Quality Professional Development, ongoing support includes the following:

  • Sessions during which additional lessons and techniques are demonstrated
    Opportunities to practice techniques in role-play situations
  • Time for teachers to work together
  • Opportunities to work with experts, such as coaches, consultants, or other instructional leaders. Effective coaches and expert consultants can observe teachers’ practices and offer guidance and feedback, demonstrate lessons, help create solutions to instructional problems, and assist teachers in using assessment results to inform instruction.

2. Provide time and resources for professional development that focus on the subject matter content teachers are expected to teach and that aligns with district, state, and national standards. Professional development is more effective when it is part of a school reform effort, as opposed to an isolated event (Cohen & Hill, 2001; Elmore & Burney, 1997; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Supovitz, Mayer, & Kahle, 2000). Therefore, it is important that every professional development experience aligns with school improvement and student learning goals and addresses the teaching of specific curriculum content (Kosanovich et al., 2010). For example, if content area teachers have learned about the Frayer model as a method to teach vocabulary, the facilitator should model the process, using text from a particular discipline, rather than simply describing the steps of a Frayer model.

3. Provide targeted professional development in an intensive format that is continuous throughout the year. Teachers need high-level, long-term support from instructional leaders to make major changes in their behaviors, habits, and knowledge, and this process can take a considerable amount of time (Snow-Renner & Lauer, 2005). Examples of this support include building the capacity of individuals and teams to be leaders and learners, improving teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy and student learning, and promoting collaboration among educators to build shared responsibility for student achievement (Hirsh & Killion, 2007). Instructional leaders can strategically create master schedules in a way that protects teachers’ time to work with academic departments or grade levels. This effort can facilitate consistent instruction, a willingness to share instructional practices, and successful problem-solving among teachers (American Institutes for Research, 2007; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). For example, engaging in professional learning communities helps teachers deepen their knowledge, build their skills, and improve instruction (Calkins, Guenther, Belfiore, & Lash, 2007; Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007; Supovitz & Christman, 2003). Professional learning communities are one way to target professional development that can be continuous throughout the year.

4. Monitor implementation of the practices from professional development and related teacher and student outcomes for at least 2 years to determine the association between them. Evaluating a professional development program includes gathering data from sources such as teacher effectiveness evaluations and student academic outcomes. Because the change process takes time and requires ongoing support, data beyond the current year should be considered when determining the long-term effects of professional development. Evaluating professional development helps instructional leaders determine whether to maintain, improve, or remove professional development programs.

Important Considerations

There are many important considerations for schools striving to implement the practices described in this blog. It is essential to keep in mind that professional development is not a series of events, but should be part of a coherent, focused program designed for a specific outcome. Here is a list of questions for instructional leaders to seriously consider when planning a professional development program:

»Does the professional development directly connect to school improvement and student learning goals and address the teaching of specific curriculum content?
»Is the professional development based on teacher needs and results from student assessments?
»Is the professional development plan coordinated across the state, district, and school, so that efforts are not duplicated and training sessions do not compete for time or send contradictory messages?
»Does the professional development include active learning for teachers?
»Do teachers from the same grade levels and disciplines participate together to foster collegial networks and a shared understanding of program goals?
»Does the professional development include training and support for administrators, instructional leaders, instructional coaches, and teachers?
»Are there follow-up sessions and ongoing support for classroom implementation throughout the year?
»How can time be provided for teachers to work together and with experts such as district specialists, a job-embedded professional development support person, consultants, or other instructional leaders?
»How can I provide opportunities for teachers to observe classrooms where the program or strategy is being implemented with fidelity and students are successful?
»What are the needs of the teachers? Do some need more individualized support, while others assume a leadership or coach role?
»Is there a systematic, ongoing needs assessment process to inform short- and long-term professional development planning?
»How will the professional development program be monitored over a 2-year period to determine the association between the practices from the professional development and teacher and student outcomes?

A Note About Online Professional Development

With the increase in budget challenges, there is a push for online teacher professional development. However, the evidence for this type of professional development is limited (Whitehouse, Breit, McCloskey, Ketelhut, & Dede, 2006). Some studies suggest that online teacher professional development can be effective. For example, Pianta, Mashburn, Downer, Hamre, and Justice (2008) report that Head Start teachers made significant improvements in their student interactions after they watched online videos, participated in structured responses, and received online consultation with an expert. The comparison group of Head Start teachers participated in the videos and structured responses, but not the online consultation. The researchers did not use a comparison group of teachers who used the traditional face-to-face professional development, and they did not analyze the program’s effect on student achievement. Overall, more research regarding middle school student outcomes associated with online teacher professional development is needed.

The Middle School Matters Research Platform encompasses research-based principles that support effective teachers. Below, Erica Rodriguez of Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School, a school receiving the Middle School Matters Institute’s Tier II support, describes the school’s professional development model and how it supports and enhances student learning.

Targeted Professional Development

Reflections From the Field

LBJ Middle School, in a small town deep in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, is home to approximately 980 students. On a typical school day, buses unload sleepy passengers, mockingbirds rustle among the live oaks, and parents dropping off their children steal a quick kiss before they zoom off to work.

At about 7:25 a.m., students bustle to their first-period classrooms to eat breakfast and listen to the morning announcements. Just like the birds chirping outside, students rambunctiously speak to one another—mostly in English but sometimes in Spanish and sometimes both at the same time.

About 33% of the students at LBJ Middle School are identified English language learners (ELLs). “Code switching” is quite common, and Spanish can be heard often. Teachers and staff members are so accustomed to the students that communication flows flawlessly in either language, and in our Dual Language Program, code switching is encouraged.

The reality is that for several years, our ELLs have struggled to perform satisfactorily on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). Our data show that our ELLs underperform in all content areas and struggle to meet federal and state safeguards, and many students who have been in the United States for more than 5 years haven’t progressed to the next level. They haven’t acquired the academic language to succeed in middle school, high school, and in postsecondary settings. Despite our best efforts and our students being able to communicate socially in either language, our students are falling short in the areas of speaking, listening, reading, and writing when it comes to academics in the English language.

This year, we have committed to providing our teachers with sustained professional development on best practices for ELLs. We truly believe that the Middle School Matters Institute has provided us with the appropriate level of direction, support, and resources to transform our campus into one in which all stakeholders are empowered to continuously expand their capacity and raise student achievement for those who would otherwise falter in high school and beyond.

Our Professional Development Model

To begin, we shared the Middle School Matters Research Platform and field guide with the staff and committed to the principles and practices therein. We discussed the research-based principles and practices that support effective teaching, shared what those principles meant to our school, and described what they looked like in the classroom.

A team consisting of administrators, the dean of instruction, an instructional coach, and department heads attended district training with the intention of improving implementation of the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) on the campus. We assembled this team to focus on slecting motivated, knowledgeable, and experienced teachers with strong academic backgrounds and above-average performance in raising student achievement.

This team immersed themselves with foundational ELL material. The two resources we shared were an ELL Participant’s Manual and the ELPS Academy Resource Guide provided by Texas Education Association Education Service Center, Region 20. We prepared these materials for teachers and created a slideshow to facilitate our training. Teachers attended a 6-hour Saturday training and participated in various activities on the ELPS, Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS), language objectives, performance-level descriptors, and instructional strategies targeted for ELLs. One activity involved the teachers accessing TELPAS results through the DMAC software system and creating progress-monitoring reports for every ELL in their classrooms. Teachers ended the training by creating an exit ticket—a red heart that prompted them to reflect on how difficult it is for students who don’t know the language and how challenging it is for teachers to differentiate for these students. In addition, teachers wrote the best strategies for ELLs in the heart as part of the “contract.” These hearts are displayed in our data room and serve as a reminder that this labor of love is the only way to address the needs of our ELLs.

Now that the initial training had been established, the administrators and instructional coaches had a plan and knew what to look for during the 10 learning walks we are required to complete each week. These learning walks targeted were designed to monitor teacher performance in a systematic way that is connected with a plan for instructional improvement and professional development.

Content and language objectives displayed in a student-friendly way? Check. Interactive word walls? Check. Rich print environment? Check. Students speaking in English, listening to English, reading English, and writing in English? Check. Check. Check. Check. Now we had evidence to discuss. In our postobservation conference, we could now provide teachers with feedback on what we observed. And we made sure to recognize and acknowledge the effort and commitment teachers gave day in and day out.


We knew we couldn’t just provide 6 hours of training and hope that teachers magically would retain this information in addition to the myriad of other initiatives they have to manage. So every Wednesday, all departments meet for 45 minutes as a collaborative learning community. This time was built into the master schedule at the beginning of the year, and it has been a blessing. The department heads serve as collaborative learning facilitators and are responsible for carrying out the professional development. The dean of instruction collaborates with the collaborative learning facilitators to provide data or resources. The collaborative learning facilitators provide an agenda focused on professional development and use protocols that facilitate discussions and ensure participation from all teachers. We focus on meeting the needs of ELLs. An example of this participation is a teacher sharing what he did to activate prior knowledge in the classroom. The teacher would talk about the activity and share student work samples with the collaborative learning facilitator. Or a collaborative learning community could take the form of a book study to learn about instructional strategies for ELLs and create an action plan to use in the classroom.

These meetings created opportunities to provide effective demonstrations, professional development, and leadership support to teachers on the necessity of using data to inform, plan, and adjust instruction, in addition to other areas. Likewise, it allowed us to implement ongoing, intensive professional development that targeted what teachers are expected to teach in alignment with district, state, and national standards and that matched teacher and student needs.

Lessons Learned

This is our first year being a part of the Middle School Matters Institute, and many of the principles are new to us. We are slowly but surely embracing our professional development model, and time will tell whether we see student success.

The following are some factors to consider:

  • We have “built-in” professional development time within our school day, and teachers still have 45 minutes of uninterrupted conference time within 2 weeks, ensuring regular, systematic, and structured time for professional development.
  • Because we took a risk and stretched the leadership capacity of our department heads by having them lead professional development, we did have some resistance early on, so strong support and reassurance are critical.
  • You must have materials readily available to support and facilitate each professional development session, such as agendas, books for book studies, and student work samples.
  • We meet with the department heads, who also are the collaborative learning facilitators, once every 2 weeks after school to share our experiences and help with the agendas.
  • Our teachers have embraced the collaborative planning model, which in turn helped our professional development model.
  • There is a difference between planning and professional development. Teachers plan their instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and have professional development on Wednesday.

Learn More

To learn more about research-based practices that support the development of effective teachers, explore the following resources:

The IRIS Center learning modules

National Center on Teaching and Learning

Additional resources on effective teachers are available in the Middle School Matters Clearinghouse. These resources can be filtered by intended audience or resource type.


American Institutes for Research. (2007). Successful California schools in the context of educational adequacy. Washington, DC: Author.

Calkins, A., Guenther, W., Belfiore, G., & Lash, D. (2007). The turnaround challenge: Why America’s best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools. Boston, MA: Mass Insight Education & Research Institute.

Center on Instruction. (2006). Designing high quality professional development: Building a community of reading experts in elementary schools. Portsmouth, NH: Author. Retrieved from

Cohen, D. K., & Hill, H. C. (2001). Learning policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elmore, R. F., & Burney, D. (1997). Investing in teacher learning: Staff development and instructional improvement: Community School District 2, New York City. New York, NY: National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945.

Goddard, Y. L., Goddard, R. D., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). Theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877–896.

Hirsh, S., & Killion, J. (2007). The learning educator: A new era for professional learning. Oxford, OH: National Staff Development Council.

Kosanovich, M. L., Reed, D. K., & Miller, D. H. (2010). Bringing literacy strategies into content instruction: Professional learning for secondary-level teachers. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research, Center on Instruction.

McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Penuel, W., Fishman, B., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. (2007). What makes professional development effective? Strategies that foster curriculum implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921–958.

Pianta, R. C., Mashburn, A. J., Downer, J. T., Hamre, B. K., & Justice, L. (2008). Effects of web-mediated professional development resources on teacher-child interactions in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 431–451.

Snow-Renner, R., & Lauer, P. A. (2005). Professional development analysis. Retrieved from

Supovitz, J. A., & Christman, J. B. (2003). Developing communities of instructional practice: Lessons from Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Supovitz, J. A., Mayer, D. P., & Kahle, J. B. (2000). Promoting inquiry based instructional practice: The longitudinal impact of professional development in the context of systemic reform. Educational Policy, 14(3), 331–356.

Whitehouse, P., Breit, L., McCloskey, E., Ketelhut, D. J., & Dede, C. (2006). An overview of current findings from empirical research on online teacher professional development. In C. Dede (Ed.), Online professional development for teachers: Emerging models and methods (pp. 13–30). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W. Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007-No. 033). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from