Teachers can change the world: Scaling quality teacher professional development

A classroom celebrates World Teachers' Day while doing a chemistry experiment.

Millions of children recently began their new school year—some of them for the first time in three years—and their learning will be shaped by the 62 million teachers welcoming them. October 5 is UNESCO’s annual World Teachers’ Day and, so, teachers merit a closer look.

Research typically finds that teachers are the most important component of formal education, and quality instruction one of the biggest contributors to student learning. A 2018 World Bank report on global and regional assessments in Africa found that teacher knowledge, teaching practice, and instructional time were the “most consistent sources of impact on student learning.” Teachers often get to know—and become invested in—children and their families for months, sometimes years at a time and teachers’ efforts not only influence students’ academic achievement but also their long-term success and well-being.

We believe that teachers can change the world—and we hope to contribute to that indispensable goal.

Teachers are also costly. Teacher salaries and benefits comprise the largest line item in any government’s education budget: about 75 percent of the education budget in the U.S. and  55 to 75 percent in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In fact, most LMICs spend about 10 percent of their entire government budget on teachers.

Even though teachers are essential to education success and constitute large parts of public sector budgets, there is a shortage of qualified teachers and currently an exodus of teachers from the profession. UNESCO estimates that nearly 69 million additional teachers will need to be recruited by 2030 for primary and secondary education alone. In the United States, many districts are facing a critical teacher shortage this fall. Teacher preparedness is a further challenge. In sub-Saharan Africa, 35 percent of primary teachers and half of all secondary teachers do not meet minimum qualification requirements.

The reasons for the shortage and lack of preparedness are complicated and result from interconnected topics such as school conditions and teacher policies; status, recruitment, and demographics of teachers; retention challenges; and both preservice teacher preparation and in-service professional development contours. In many places, teaching is a low-paid profession and is treated as easy-in/easy-out, nontechnical work. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing strains on teachers and as a result many left or are considering leaving due to health fears, societal disrespect, a lack of professional autonomy, and the effects of burnout.

The importance of quality teacher professional development

We believe the two most pressing issues here are (1) recruiting, preparing, and retaining sufficient numbers of qualified teachers; and (2) improving the way education offers teachers continuing and effective professional development. That first issue is particularly complex and requires confronting intertwined realities such as the unfairly low status of teaching as a profession, frequently untenable work conditions, and the lack of promotion opportunities. These cannot be addressed without transforming whole education systems, which requires engaging with the complex combination of a country’s commitment to education, its overall financial health and donor relationships, its political economy, and various longstanding cultural and gender histories. The tasks can seem, frankly, overwhelming.

The second issue is slightly easier to undertake: the need to design and deliver high-quality teacher professional development (TPD) to all teachers in ways that allow them to grow and learn more, stay up-to-date, and succeed in their work of supporting children to learn and grow in the 21st century.

Increasing the knowledge and skills of teachers to prepare children to thrive is essential. Improving TPD at scale will improve teaching and learning for whole populations, keep effective teachers in the profession longer, and contribute to the success of the many promising education innovations currently being developed and implemented. Just about every education innovation—including those connected to ed tech, foundational literacy and numeracy, and socioemotional development—requires modifying and improving teacher practices. TPD also provides an important opportunity for focusing on equitable teaching and learning, inclusive instruction, and curricula that correspond directly to students’ lives and goals.

Yet, education reformers struggle to design and deliver TPD across regions or whole countries. Almost every partner that the Millions Learning project at the Center for Universal Education has collaborated with has faced challenges scaling teacher training within their broader education scaling efforts. Even when their initiatives are not primarily focused on teacher training, preparing and supporting teachers to deliver the initiatives at large scale and with impact carries challenges—including those related to capacity, affordability, equity, and sustainability. Given this, it is clear that educational improvement requires reckoning with how to scale TPD effectively, efficiently, and equitably.

Not as easy as it might sound

Over the past 20 years, the fields of teacher education and professional development have learned a lot, and small-scale teacher development efforts can be very good. However, this body of research, theories, and best practices has often not translated into quality, cost-effective TPD at large scale.

  1. What works at small scale does not automatically work at large scale. Identifying and training sufficient numbers of teacher instructors who are familiar with the local contexts and who can provide ongoing, in-person mentoring or coaching that fits the particular teacher’s situation is difficult, as is reaching large numbers of teachers in meaningful ways. Economies of scale can result in diluted effects.
  2. High-quality TPD is expensive. But cheap TPD’s effects often quickly fade or are washed out by the system. Quantity and quality often oppose each other. Hybrid models might offer one opportunity for striking this balance.
  3. Policymakers—especially at the national government and district levels—struggle to find good information on how to put evidence-based TPD into practice. It is too often assumed that any TPD program will automatically work, that teacher attendance equals teacher learning, or that delivering quality TPD is simple. In fact, none of those is true.
  4. It is tempting to assume technology will solve the challenges of scaling TPD, but technology “will not make a bad teacher professional development program better. The use of technology can, in fact, make TPD programs worse,” such as when the technology frustrates or alienates the participants or excludes those without access or know-how.
  5. Common approaches to assessing TPD efforts are insufficient. Most large-scale TPD programs are currently evaluated by way of teacher attendance numbers, participant feedback surveys, or quick self-reports at the conclusion of the training, which result in a dearth of information on whether the training is having concrete, extended, positive effects on teachers and students. Conducting longitudinal, mixed-methods studies of TPD quality or the effects of different models is rarely incentivized.

How to move TPD forward?

Designing, adapting, and scaling quality TPD is not simple, but it is critical—and therefore an area on which we in Millions Learning have chosen to focus. Offering lasting, effective teacher development at scale requires knowledge of the particular teachers themselves and contemporary theories of adult learning, experimentation with innovative training models that include in-person coaching and project-based learning, and smart uses of technology. It also requires thoughtful research, meaningful partnerships among TPD groups and their government partners, and a long-term commitment.

We at Millions Learning look forward to embarking on just such a project in the coming months. There are many wonderful TPD efforts and teams out there and we wish to work with them, learn alongside them as they test out different scaling strategies, and support their ability to improve education by way of increased teacher quality, retention, and impact on our world’s students. We believe that teachers can change the world—and we hope to contribute to that indispensable goal.