Prior research has shown that one of the most important indicators of effective teachers is that they know their subject matter. This study, by American Institutes for Research (AIR), examines whether content-intensive math professional development (PD) can impact that subject matter knowledge, as well as teachers’ instructional practice and their students’ achievement.

Analysts study a popular PD program called Intel Math, which is focused on deepening teachers’ knowledge of K–8 mathematics. It offers ninety-three hours of total PD time—eighty hours of which was delivered over the summer of 2013, with the other thirteen delivered during the 2013–14 school year. The PD focuses on the conceptual foundations of math and its interconnectedness across grades K–8. Teachers also get time to analyze student work on topics covered in the PD and receive video-based coaching during which they get individual feedback, particularly on the quality and clarity of their mathematical explanations.

Roughly 220 fourth-grade teachers from ninety-four schools in six districts and five states participated and were randomly assigned within schools to either the treatment group that received the PD or the control group that did not, receiving instead business-as-usual professional development.

One of the three key findings is that the professional development—which was deemed as having been implemented with fidelity—had a positive effect on teacher knowledge. Treatment teachers overall participated in a whopping ninety-five more hours of math PD than did control teachers. On average, treatment teachers’ knowledge scores on a study-administered math test were 21 percentage points higher than the control teachers’ scores after the professional development was completed. Second, the PD also had a large positive impact on some aspects of instructional practice, particularly relative to the conceptual aspects of math and the quality of teachers’ math explanations to students.

The third key finding is not so positive. The boost to teacher outcomes did not translate to student achievement gains, as measured on both state math assessments and a study-administered test. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure why. But this study does suggest that professional development alone on discrete aspects of math knowledge is unlikely to move the needle much on student achievement.

Targeting content knowledge only—not instructional delivery, rapport with kids, school or classroom culture, or a myriad of other things that professional development could feasibly target—is only a small and perhaps misunderstood piece of this very complex achievement puzzle.

SOURCE: Michael S. Garet et al., "Focusing on Mathematical Knowledge: The Impact of Content-Intensive Teacher Professional Development," U.S. Department of Education (September 2016).

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

View Full Bio