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Effective Professional Development Promotes Powerful Learning


This is the fifth installment of our blog series, Solving Teacher Shortages.

This Spring, the mayor of Purvis, Mississippi, sat down with the seventh graders at Purvis Middle School to discuss the process of making change in their community. This unusual gathering was the result of a class project in which students sought to answer the question, “How can we be humanitarians in our community?” Guided by their teacher, Brooke Ann McWilliams, the students conducted research to identify ways to improve their town and wrote proposals based on that research. One girl, as a result of the assignment, applied for a grant to set up and steward a Little Free Library, and garnered city officials’ support for placing it on park land if she receives funding.

In 2015, as part of a  community research project in Columbus, Montana, two of teacher Casey Olsen’s 10th graders wrote a letter to the editor of the Stillwater County News arguing for an Advanced Life Support District to provide more accessible ambulance services to the small communities in their far-flung county. The letter sparked community conversation and debate, leading to a ballot measure on the issue. On May 3, 2017, Stillwater County voters passed the initiative, ensuring the continuation of these services.

These projects grew out of the participation of two accomplished teachers in the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP), which aims to improve young people’s ability to write thoughtful, evidence-based arguments. Formerly known as the College-Ready Writers Program, C3WP builds on the National Writing Project’s 43-year history of cultivating teacher learning and leadership for the purpose of improving the teaching of writing. McWilliams recently completed her first year of C3WP professional development, and Olsen has been a member of C3WP’s national leadership team since its inception in 2013. Their students’ achievements demonstrate how effective and engaging professional development prepares teachers to lead lessons that not only teach youth how to write evidence-based arguments, but can also actively engage students in civic life.

Elements of Effective Professional Development

LPI’s report Effective Teacher Professional Development identifies key elements of effective professional development as manifested in 35 rigorous studies finding strong influences of professional development on teacher practices and student learning. These elements include:

  • Content focus: PD that focuses on teaching strategies associated with specific curriculum content supports teacher learning within teachers’ classroom contexts.
  • Active learning: Active learning engages teachers directly in designing and trying out teaching strategies, providing them an opportunity to engage in the same style of learning they are designing for their students.
  • Collaboration: High-quality PD creates space for teachers to share ideas and collaborate in their learning, often in job-embedded contexts.
  • Modeling of effective practice: Curricular models and modeling of instruction provide teachers with a clear vision of what best practices look like.
  • Coaching and expert support: Sharing expertise about content and evidence-based practices, focused directly on teachers’ individual needs.

Rooted in Effective Professional Development

The College, Career, and Community Writers Program relies on three interconnected elements to support teachers in making substantial shifts in their practice: professional development, curricular resources, and formative assessment. During 45 hours of professional development per year, teachers undertake the kinds of reading and writing assignments they will later give their students and work alongside local Writing Project teacher-leaders to develop plans for integrating these new teaching and learning approaches in their classrooms.

McWilliams notes that the experience “demonstrated how to interact with the students” and gave her confidence that if C3WP “worked for me, it will work for my students.” Further, the professional development seeks to build teachers’ understanding of underlying principles of teaching and learning argument writing. For example, C3WP’s curricular materials illustrate how short instructional sequences that focus on a limited set of skills or practices can build over time and culminate in substantial projects like those undertaken by McWilliams’ and Olsen’s students. C3WP’s professional development approach engages teachers in understanding such principles and supports sustainability by building teachers’ ownership of the practices.

Event: Does Investing in Teacher Professional Development Make a Difference?

Casey Olsen participated in a briefing on effective professional development in Washington, DC, on June 5, 2017.

C3WP supports high-quality professional development with rich, teacher-developed instructional resources designed to bridge teachers’ current practice, as well as the implementation of complex, multi-day instructional sequences focused on argument writing. Through offering both professional learning and curricular resources—created and tested by experienced writing teachers in diverse classrooms—C3WP offers models of effective practice that shape teachers’ approach to teaching and learning.

The program also engages teachers in collaboratively assessing students’ written arguments to understand what students can already do and what they need to learn next for the purpose of planning instruction. Using the program’s formative assessment (the Using Sources Tool) has changed how McWilliams assesses student writing. “Content used to come second to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Now content comes first,” she says. Similarly, McWilliams asserts that “the Using Sources Tool helps students focus on the important elements [of writing]—their creativity” and their use of sources.

The National Writing Project’s C3WP exemplifies the Learning Policy Institute’s findings about the elements of effective learning for teachers. Over the course of 1 to 2 years (45–90 hours), teachers are actively engaged as learners of discipline-specific content. Teacher-leaders at local Writing Project sites facilitate the professional learning opportunities, modeling instructional practices and sharing “a clear vision” of what high-quality practice looks like. The program’s central focus on formative assessment creates opportunities for reflection and feedback tied to the program’s content.

An independent, random assignment study validates this program’s impact on both teacher and student learning. SRI researchers studying the program’s first iteration in 22 high-poverty, rural districts in 10 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee) found that C3WP students demonstrated greater proficiency in reasoning and in using evidence in their writing than those in control group districts. They also found that teachers in participating districts used instructional approaches that differed significantly from those in districts in which teachers did not participate in the training. For example, C3WP teachers were more likely to teach students to connect evidence to claims and to select evidence from source material—key elements of college and career expectations.

Everyone Benefits

The College, Career, and Community Writers Program demonstrates the power of effective professional development. Through this program, experienced teachers share their knowledge, and the collective program knowledge and resources with new program participants, providing the type of leadership opportunity that research shows can be critical to the growth and satisfaction of veteran educators. For their part, teachers new to the program gain new insights and skills. Ultimately, this effective professional development program also teaches students how to be persuasive communicators, preparing them for a future of learning, work, and civic engagement.

Linda Friedrich is the Director of Research & Evaluation for the National Writing Project, which focuses the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation's educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners. For more information: