This article was written in partnership with Anant Udpa and Laurie Sztejnberg.

Following the last two challenging school years, expectations have never been higher for teachers and school leaders. Educators are expected to teach students who have missed instruction, to support students’ emotional needs, and to do it all in an environment of health and safety. 

They can’t do it alone, and they often can’t do it successfully without strengthening and adapting their skills to the current moment. The kind of support teachers and educational leaders need is both well-known (reinforcing instructional core, differentiating to respond to academic needs of students, and supporting students’ overall well-being ) and new (leveraging technology, varying delivery mode, and increasing reliance on interim or tech-based assessments). Educators are also reconsidering how to improve and strengthen the way they engage families, something that has long been a necessary but underutilized aspect of a strong instructional core, and which has only become more important during the pandemic. 

We find ourselves in a unique moment: with $123B in federal stimulus funding for K-12 and a growing and common understanding that high-quality instructional materials (HQIM), continued high expectations for students, and aligned supports for educators are powerful and proven levers to improve student learning. This is all particularly important when trying to develop strategies that support both learning acceleration and remediation for students. So what do we do with the knowledge we have?

More and more proof points have emerged that well-designed, externally-provided professional learning can drive significant improvements in both teacher and student-level outcomes, and do so at a fraction of the cost.

The impact of high-quality professional learning

Many gaps in our understanding remain about the empirical relationship among teacher professional learning (PL) interventions; changes in teacher knowledge, practice, and efficacy; and gains in student learning outcomes. The available evidence to-date is fairly mixed, with few rigorous, experimental studies and only a small percentage of past evaluations meeting the What Works Clearinghouse evidence standards.

But in recent years, more and more proof points have emerged that well-designed, externally-provided PL can drive significant improvements in both teacher and student-level outcomes, and do so at a fraction of the cost of the average school system’s annual spend on professional development. That said, measurement is complicated by a whole host of system- and school-level conditions—from leadership to culture to resourcing—that we know can enable or inhibit the effectiveness of PL. 

Given the current need and the expanding evidence base for high-quality PL aligned to HQIM, we’re excited to support organizations like Teaching Lab, Leading Educators, and Public Impact, and school leadership organizations like Instruction Partners and New LeadersThe breadth of work our partners engage in means we have emerging insights into what works at the teacher, school, and system levels. Funding these organizations not only allows us to improve learning conditions across different levels that impact education, but also ensures that we learn in real-time as to what system and school-level conditions moderate or amplify the effectiveness of PL, leading to better or worse efficacy. 

Lessons in professional learning for educators during COVID

As a foundation, we have long believed in the importance of high expectations for all students and HQIM aligned to PL for educators. All five of the organizations we fund in this space apply evidence-based practices that incorporate many of the principles of research-based high-quality PL, and some have even demonstrated direct impact on student learning gains through robust external evaluation. Many are already cost-effective models, particularly when compared to average system spend on traditional PL, which for some districts can cost as much as $18K per teacher per year without yielding any measurable, long-lasting changes in teacher- or student-level outcomes.

This means our PL and school leadership grantees are well-positioned to capitalize on the current moment, which requires the ability to deliver high-quality PL aligned to HQIM to as many teachers as possible in the short-term, and to build capacity for long-term growth and sustainability beyond the projected public funding cliff in three years. 

Still, there is much to learn. Here are some of our main takeaways from the past 18 months:

  1. Learning acceleration for students will require considerable hands-on PL for educators going forward, especially when it comes to leveraging tech-enabled learning solutions. Organizations that deliver PL tied to HQIM are seeing incredible demand for their services from schools and districts, suggesting that districts understand how important a well-trained educator can be for student success. There is still an opportunity to better help educators leverage technology, however; in April 2021, teachers were still divided on whether their ability to use technology had improved. Whether schools are in-person or hybrid (or more likely a cyclical mix of the two this upcoming year), educators will need continued opportunities to learn how to maximize instructional impact and accelerate student learning.
  2. Virtual delivery can increase cost-effectiveness of professional learning, though impact is still TBD. All of our PL grantees made a rapid shift to virtual delivery in 2020, and many built out virtual delivery options that reduced expenses, making their programs more cost-effective for districts to implement. For example, Teaching Lab found that their learning management system significantly decreased the cost of delivering PL, while keeping early indicators of impact strong. As a next step, we’re excited to support organizations to strategically identify the right balance of virtual delivery with synchronous, in-person time by continually monitoring impact to make sure it stays steady regardless of delivery method.
  3. Systems-level and school leadership support is critical for student and educator recovery. School leaders emerged as key supporters of student learning and teacher morale, especially when it came to navigating uncertainties throughout the pandemic, with organizations such as Instruction Partners finding that the most effective levers for improving teaching were driven by school leadership versus district-level changes. We predict that organizations that offer systems-level supports (capacity building and coaching for district and school leaders) and direct-to-teacher PL will be crucial during recovery and going forward, due to their emphasis on curriculum and assessment selection, time and resource allocation, and educator training. 
  4. Predicted labor shortages and continued hybrid instruction will require staffing innovation. Ninety-one percent of districts and systems surveyed anticipated revised work roles and job duties for teachers and staff, but barriers to scaling innovative staffing strategies remain, including labor contracts and union concerns. For example, Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture, which restructures pre-K–12 schools to extend the reach and pay of excellent educators, found that some automation of processes and project assignments allowed for the ability to serve more students and schools sooner at a reduced price-point. Innovations in staffing structures may enable even further reach for excellent teachers, and potentially increase teacher retention as educators find roles that best suit their expertise, making this challenge worthy of attention.

Our investments in PL and school leadership organizations are designed to improve teacher performance in each school by providing ongoing support, strong staffing, and a school culture aligned to an instructional vision that includes HQIM. Looking ahead, our grantees in this space are also methodically seeking out ways to adjust, streamline, and codify their offerings to achieve even more cost-effective scale.

There is a lot of progress to be made, but we have high confidence that these programs can realize significant impact and scale potential through 1) continued improvement and deeper evaluation, 2) testing new, more cost-effective and flexible virtual delivery models/channels, and 3) conducting analyses of other enabling conditions at the system- and school-level.

What we need from the field

We already know a great deal about what makes professional learning effective for educators—specifically alignment to high-quality instructional materials, cycles of feedback, and job-embedded coaching—but there are still things we’re waiting to learn. It will take coordinated efforts to understand how to improve teacher practice at a scale that all teacher instruction, and therefore all student learning, can improve. 

That’s why supporting research to better understand what aspects of teacher professional learning are most impactful is so critical. This includes looking at factors like the amount of time spent in professional development, the content and focus area of that development, and when the development opportunities arise. Through partnerships with different researchers and direct impact organizations, we are excited to continue contributing to the field’s understanding of what it takes to cost-effectively scale high-quality PL for all educators. 

In the meantime, as districts make choices about what PL to provide to their educators in the coming weeks, we ask them to consider the following. 

  1. Opt for a provider who adheres to the principles of high quality, content-aligned professional learning. 
  2. Try to examine that partner’s effectiveness (resource to make that choice here) before committing.
  3. Use professional learning as an opportunity to reinforce an instructional vision that supports students learning and teachers teaching.   

We invite you to join us in efforts to increase the concentration of expert educators in K-9 so that more children have access to educators who empower them to reach their full potential. Reach out to learn more.