How to Promote Effective Professional Development in Your District

A new framework addresses PD challenges

Jon Saderholm, Bob Ronau, Margaret J. Mohr-Schroeder, Chris Rakes, and Sarah B. Bush

What should we do if everybody’s satisfied with a professional development (PD) experience but it doesn’t result in change? How can we shift the focus of PD toward classroom transformation? Can we all agree that the best definition of “effective PD” is that it transforms teacher practice in their classrooms? What might teachers’ roles be? Is it enough for teachers to show up and absorb information, or is it important to promote their participation in the framing and planning of PD? Answers to questions like these are important because unfortunately, all too often, the impact of PD is limited by systemic challenges originating from differing perspectives among stakeholders, limited adaptability, and lack of classroom connections.

A conversation with a current superintendent provides a great example of the need for a framework like PrimeD. He described two simultaneous PD projects in his school—one that succeeded and another that did not. Having just come onboard as the principal of a small elementary school, he discovered a belief among the faculty that student discipline was out of control. Unfortunately, the school lacked baseline data, having only a few anecdotes to support faculty beliefs—but something needed to be done. Because the school had good faculty leadership, he was able to form an ad hoc committee—including teachers who taught students with special needs—to gather and analyze data and then develop a solution. He told the committee not to worry about money. They looked at Hattie’s (2008) early work about the impact of a single distracting child and Larry Lezotte’s work about effective schools.

Together, they concluded that rather than approaching the problem from a punitive perspective, students should be taught appropriate classroom behavior while the faculty adopted a clear-expectations model. They selected CHAMPs  and began with a strong implementation process, including a four-day deep dive PD experience before the school year started. The first three days were shared by the entire faculty, while on the fourth day teachers personalized the new approach in their classrooms. The program included substantial job-embedded training, and incorporated on-going data collection that was reviewed and discussed monthly by the school council. Consequently, rates of misbehavior declined and the community felt empowered to make change.

At the same time, the school was beginning to implement Everyday Mathematics, which had been selected by the previous principal. The faculty felt as if this had been forced upon them, limiting their sense of buy-in. And the implementation process didn’t help. Beforehand, no data were collected against which to measure improvement. Initial PD consisted of a one-day workshop conducted by an external consultant, who then promptly left. Boxes of materials were dumped in teachers’ classrooms, leaving them with piles of manipulatives without the understanding of how to use them. The limited job-embedded PD was focused on implementation, rather than conceptual understanding. Despite its significant potential to promote mathematics conceptual understanding, students, teachers, and parents remained frustrated and minimal change occurred in the classrooms. The contrasts between these two PD projects are stark and the differences are noticeable. Why was it that in the same school, one project succeeded while the other failed?

Long-term impact limited
Another example might help provide more context. In addition to our individual work preparing future and current teachers, we collaborate as a research team providing external evaluation for PD projects. Our evaluation of a particular statewide PD project resulted in an interesting conclusion. This project’s design included two-week summer institutes for K-12 mathematics and science teachers, and concluded with the creation of peer-reviewed lessons to contribute to the state-supported repository. Although the PD was smoothly implemented, participant-centered, focused on many research-based best practices, and received high praise from the teacher participants, our analysis indicated the chance that the PD would have long-term classroom impact was limited by several critical characteristics.

Over each two-week session, participants experienced new ways to learn important content before applying those experiences to create peer-reviewed lesson plans. This seems simple and effective. And yet, when we interviewed members of the various stakeholder groups, we found radically different views about the purpose of the experience. Designers informally referred to “change theory” as their overarching framework, but we couldn’t find any evidence of its application by any of the facilitators. Some facilitators thought inquiry learning or collaboration were the organizing frames, while others described it as being focused on building robust content knowledge. Additionally, the diversity of participants’ prior experiences was not incorporated into the session designs. And although the lesson creation process had the potential to be an excellent application of their new understandings, it was poorly articulated with the other parts of the PD. Consequently, based upon a wide array of PD effectiveness research we concluded that these critical disjunctions limited the institutes’ effectiveness and likelihood of classroom impact.

PrimeD: A Four-Phase Framework
These examples point to the need for a framework to structure and synthesize the research on PD effectiveness; one that aligns the diverse aspects of PD, focusing on research describing effective PD and how teachers learn. We designed the PrimeD framework to accomplish this purpose (Figure 1). PrimeD scaffolds PD projects into four phases — Design and Development, Implementation, Evaluation, and Research — that fit together and inform each other. It is grounded in core characteristics of effective PD: alignment with student learning needs; follow-through intensity and connection to practice; focus on the teaching and learning of specific content; connection to other school initiatives; and provision of time and opportunities for teachers to collaborate and build strong working relationships. Furthermore, PrimeD provides a structure for continuous monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation.

Phase I structures the design and development of an overall plan to define targeted goals, outcomes, and strategies (the ‘challenge space’). It challenges PD providers to synthesize a common vision together with and among all stakeholders, focus on school and classroom needs, and prioritize the most critical challenges. Phase I should be revisited frequently and systematically throughout PD implementation as a direct result of evaluation and/or research results.

Phase II organizes the project implementation into two components—whole group engagement and classroom implementation—emphasizing the connections between them as a critical aspect of the PD cycle. Phase II casts classroom integration as integral to the PD, blending whole-group PD sessions with individual teacher trials and small-group teacher interactions—driving the whole groups evolving corpus of professional knowledge forward. This simultaneously provides natural opportunities for developing, practicing, and analyzing the challenge space. During classroom implementation, teachers structure their development using PlanDoStudyAct (PDSA) cycles, which is a widely used improvement science tool. This positions teachers as researchers in their own classrooms, and situates the PD content in context. Teachers begin by identifying a concrete change idea, testing it with individuals or small groups of students, and then scaling the results up to their entire classroom. They share these innovations with colleagues to apply in their classrooms and which are finally generalized across the entire community. Consequently, over time, multiple PDSA cycles become a results-driven innovation engine for both classrooms and the broader school community

Phase III is evaluation, consisting of a formative assessment cycle occurring iteratively throughout Phases I and II, and concluding with the end-of-project summative feedback. PrimeD frames evaluation as a collaborative effort between evaluators and PD providers. The evaluation team becomes part of the leadership team, not an external agent. Ongoing evaluation provides an objective perspective that is crucial for adjusting the challenge space and implementation in response to emergent challenges.

Phase IV is the research component. Good evaluation can tell you if PD achieved the desired outcomes. Research can tell you how and why various parts of the PD impacted targeted outcomes. This knowledge can be used to make well-informed adjustments to the PD, enhancing its effectiveness and efficiency, and informing the design and implementation of future PD projects. Research results from this process are easily generalized across institutions, transforming projects from stagnation and isolation to dynamic growth through the process of sharing results and perspectives.

Cases of Two PD Programs Implementing PrimeD
Case One: Project STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, & Mathematics) applied the PrimeD framework from its conception. Even after its completion, we are applying the framework to help sustain the work as we examine its long-term impact. This was a complex, intensive, two-year PD project across five urban elementary schools with approximately 35 whole-group sessions interwoven with iterative PDSA cycles in which instructional coaches and classroom teachers implemented change ideas in their classrooms before returning to whole-group sessions to reflect and revise. Using PrimeD greatly increased the transformational value of the project. Some key benefits included:

  • Facilitating ongoing collaborative and reflective discourse among all stakeholders including university faculty, district leadership, community stakeholders, the evaluation team, building administrators, and participants.
  • Transforming our approach to planning, implementing, and evaluating PD – causing our approach to the challenges and decision making to be transparent and intentional.
  • Causing us to address all four stages from start to finish of the program.
  • Providing us with a checks-and-balance mechanism ensuring we did not miss key opportunities to improve learning for teachers and their students.

Case Two: The INSPIRES (INcreasing Student Participation, Interest, and Recruitment in Engineering and Science) program began prior to the development of the PrimeD framework, but the framework was applied during the program’s first year. Before incorporating PrimeD, confusion had arisen between the district and PD providers about the goals, strategies, and targets. Incorporating PrimeD into INSPIRES improved the program by opening a dialog between district administration and teachers, uncovering district challenges not addressed by the initial program aims, and thus enabling the development of a mutually understood challenge space. For example, while the PD facilitators were focused on improving instructional practice, the district was focused on improving classroom assessment. Because of these discussions, assessment issues were made explicit in the challenge space, and teachers recognized that the PD was helping them authentically address district initiatives, creating more excitement and engagement with the project.

PrimeD provided focus for the PD providers by scaffolding connections between classroom implementation and the challenge space. The implementation phase consisted of cycles of whole-group meetings during the summer, with small-group meetings, and classroom implementation activities during the school year. PDSA cycles structured classroom implementation. For each cycle, teachers implemented activities addressing a particular challenge discussed during a PD session and then collected artifacts to bring back to following meetings.

The evaluation and research phases of this project provided an important window into its impact. Preliminary observations using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) showed a statistically significant improvement in classroom practices during the first year. Evidence of growth in teacher leadership was observed when teachers independently developed their own collaboration sessions to work on particular challenges. Several teachers contributed their new experience and expertise on district curriculum re-design committees.

In addition to supporting and enhancing PD projects, PrimeD promotes the creation of a more robust body of professional knowledge—both locally and across the profession—by creating a feedback loop enabling strategic thinking across multiple phases within a PD project. By scaffolding the corpus of research describing effective PD and incorporating new perspectives provided by improvement science, PrimeD highlights the critical elements that must be attended to at every phase of a PD project to enhance its effectiveness. This begins by promoting the clarification of mutual goals and focusing on observable impacts in participants’ classrooms. It transforms PD from a single-purpose delivery model into a cycle through which lessons learned naturally flow into the classroom, from which new perspectives are shared among the local community, and which, in turn, inform future cycles of the PD project.

The PrimeD framework is not a cookbook, a manual, or a checklist that can be thrown at an identified need. Rather, it provides a 10,000-foot perspective guiding the process of problem understanding and solving. PrimeD is inclusive, inviting voices from many stakeholders. It supports growth through multiple feedback loops and improvement cycles connecting classroom experiments to whole-group understandings. PrimeD transforms expectations for classroom, school, and district improvement so we can break the cycle of merely reacting to the next legislative or accreditation cycle—promoting a sense of agency and responsibility among the entire professional staff rather than relying on the vision of a few over-worked administrators and teacher leaders.

Figure 1. An overview of the PrimeD framework.

Jon Saderholm ( is an associate professor of education at Berea College, in Kentucky. Bob Ronau ( is a program director at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Margaret J. Mohr-Schroeder ( is an associate professor of education at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Chris Rakes ( is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County. Sarah B. Bush ( is an associate professor of education at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. ​


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