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Report: The major problems with U.S. professional development

Two reports detail how top-performing education systems use professional development each day

Two new reports reveal that in many top education systems, teacher professional development is built into their daily work as a means for school improvement and teacher quality.

The reports from the National Center on Education and the Economy’s (NCEE) Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB) suggest that the traditional U.S. model of professional development far underperforms key competitor countries.

“When teachers have strong incentives to get better and better at their work, and they are given the opportunity to work together every day in teams to improve student achievement, they never stop seeking and finding information that can help them do a better job,” said NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker. “Professional development in the top performing systems is built directly into the way teachers do that work every day; it is not something that happens in workshops. Teachers in these systems want to improve their practice because their progression through the system’s well-defined career pathways is dependent upon their effectiveness as professionals.

“Like attorneys, engineers, architects and other professionals in the United States, they want the added compensation, responsibility, authority and, most of all, esteem and status that comes with the recognition of greater expertise. Professional development is the way they get that expertise.”

Australian researcher Ben Jensen’s report, Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, analyzed the professional learning systems in four high-performing systems. Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong all score near the top of those tested in mathematics, reading and science on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Next page: How differences greatly impact professional development

Despite differences in the four education systems, the key to all of them is that collaborative professional development, such as teachers working with other teachers to improve curriculum, instruction, school climate, etc., is built into the daily lives of teachers and school leaders.

This daily professional development is supported by policies and school organizations that:

  • Free up time in the daily lives of teachers for collaborative professional learning
  • Create leadership roles for expert teachers who both develop other teachers and lead school improvement teams
  • Recognize and reward the development of teacher expertise
  • Enable teachers and school leaders to share responsibility for their own professional learning and that of their peers.

Former Shanghai Normal University President and Shanghai Education Commission Deputy Director Minxuan Zhang’s report, Developing Shanghai’s Teachers, offers an insider’s perspective into the Shanghai education system.

Just four decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution, which closed all of China’s schools, Shanghai now stands atop the PISA league tables. Zhang played a central role in developing both the Shanghai education system as it now exists, and Shanghai Normal University, one of only two teacher preparation institutions in the city of 25 million people.

One of the top factors contributing to Shanghai’s success is its highly organized and articulated teacher development system.

Zhang describes teacher professional development in Shanghai as a triangle, with the teacher career ladder, in-service training and development, and performance appraisal as the three sides. Each side of the triangle is connected to and reinforces the other sides. Shanghai’s career ladder provides financial motivation and a progression pathway for teachers. The in-service training enables teachers to move along the ladder. Performance appraisal evaluates and recognizes teacher performance at each step of the ladder.

“Both of these important reports are part of a series on teacher quality systems in top-performing countries that we have commissioned,” said Betsy Brown Ruzzi, director of NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking. “The work CIEB is supporting in this series will serve as a rich resource for the education policy and practitioner community as it works to improve education in the U.S. and around the world.”

In addition to the reports, researchers have collected authentic tools used by the systems highlighted to assist policymakers and practitioners interested in adapting lessons learned for their own context and culture.

The tools are available at


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