• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D.  • IDRA Newsletter • April 2003

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealEach year for about nine months, teachers spend a large part of the day with our children. Teachers are among the most important persons in the lives of young individuals. There are numerous stories of people who attribute their success in life to a dedicated teacher who cared for and influenced them in many positive ways. For many of our successes in life, we owe gratitude to committed, caring and well-prepared teachers.

Unfortunately, not enough students can attribute their academic success to teachers for us to be able to call our educational system a success. We hear it in comments, like: “My teacher gets angry at me every time I speak Spanish with my friends”; “No one here cares for me; I know I will flunk anyway”; “I am just waiting to be old enough to get out of school”; and “We parents feel lost and helpless; we try to keep our children in school, but many times we have to side with them after seeing what we feel are injustices.”

Further, the low numbers of minority students who can claim academic success suggests that our educational system is not relevant to our diverse student population. Statistics on the academic performance of students, particularly minority students, show some improvement, but so minor that the wide educational gap has not diminished.

H. Mizell from The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation states: “Most teachers and administrators do not know how to help all their students perform at significantly higher levels. For those who have been teaching for the past seven to 10 years, their pre-service education did not prepare them for the realities of today’s classrooms nor for the levels of performance states now expect” (2002).

Achievement gaps between minority students and White students are primarily attributed to teacher quality. For example, 40 percent of variance in student test scores in reading and math is attributed to teacher quality (Ferguson, 1991). Teacher quality, when combined with small class size at the elementary school level, has an even more dramatic impact on student achievement (Ferguson, 1991).

In addition, the federal government has asked states to put a highly-qualified teacher in every public school classroom by 2005. There is no doubt that greater financial investment in developing teacher expertise yields greater achievement gains than investment in other resources.

Given the strong connection between student achievement and teacher quality, it should be obvious that professional development is critical. The better prepared and updated a teacher is, the greater the academic achievement of students.

In spite of the strong research support for professional development, schools face two major obstacles that diminish their professional development efforts. First, there is federal pressure to further reduce the number of centers that provide training and technical assistance to school districts. Second, funding to develop teacher expertise is declining, and steps are being taken to diminish the number of learning and training opportunities provided to teachers.

Six Tenets of Successful Professional Development

The issues are grounded on six basic tenets of successful professional development that translates into enhanced student achievement. These tenets are described below.

Professional Development is a Lifelong Process

Students are the ultimate beneficiaries of an effective professional development program in our schools. Teachers in today’s schools feel the urge to keep up to date on new teaching techniques and strategies. Tons of information are becoming available to teachers on a daily basis. Professionals such as physicians, attorneys, and accountants update their skills and knowledge periodically. Teachers are no exception. Learning is a lifelong process.

Unfortunately, many teacher preparation programs at universities are either ill preparing teachers for the realities of today’s classrooms, or student teachers are not provided enough opportunities to experience and apply learning in a real classroom. New teachers are coming into our classrooms with serious professional development needs.

J. McRobbie states, “Teaching is a lifelong journey of learning rather than a final destination of ‘knowing’ how to teach” (2001). Teachers must continue to update their skills and knowledge to become more effective teachers. Professional development activities must be aligned with new knowledge and related to the real responsibilities of a good teacher. Activities must not be disconnected from the curriculum and knowledge about the students. Teachers must be afforded the necessary time to develop their professionalism.

Teachers are not the only ones who need professional development. The research tells us about the important leadership role that principals play in effective schools. And school board members must be knowledgeable of basic pedagogy to support policies that facilitate the instruction in the classroom.

Education is a team effort that cannot be relegated solely to teachers. The U.S. Department of Education presently makes competitive grants to assist high-need local education agencies to recruit and train principals and assistant principals, and it supports teachers seeking advanced certification or advanced credentialing. It also makes competitive grants to schools and partnership organizations to improve the knowledge and skills of early childhood educators who work in communities that have high concentrations of economically disadvantaged children.

Professional Development Requires Commitment and Support from Federal and State Levels

Funds made available that target professional development are becoming smaller and smaller. At the federal level, the 15 comprehensive assistance centers (training and technical assistance centers) have been targeted for recission and will cease operations soon unless funding is restored. Also, the U.S. Department of Education has eliminated the Eisenhower Professional Development grants in mathematics and science. States, however, are allowed to use federal funds for reforming tenure systems, teacher testing, and pay differentiation initiatives.

Any local education agency receiving funds to operate a federal program is required to use between 5 percent and 10 percent of their allocations for professional development aimed at ensuring that all teachers are highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. This requirement will be lowered to the 5 percent floor in 2004. However, local education agencies and schools identified as low performing must use at least 10 percent of their allocations for professional development for correcting the deficiencies that led to their identification as low performing.

Professional Development is Essential for Quality Schools for Minority Students

Research tells us that a standards-based approach to professional development is needed. It also tells us the essential elements of a successful school for minority students. A standards-based approach is needed that defines the characteristics of a good teacher in a school with a diverse student population.

For example, a great teacher for English language learners has the following characteristics:

  • Knowledgeable about the cultures represented in the classroom;
  • Practices people skills, such as empathizing with the needs of others and caring with a critical eye;
  • Willing to unlearn myths (interference of the first language, poverty as the reason for underachievement, and parents seen as not caring about the education of their children) that interfere with quality teaching of minority students;
  • Knowledgeable about effective assessment and teaching strategies (active, inquiry-based, activating prior knowledge, cooperative learning, accelerated learning, critical pedagogy);
  • Knowledgeable of first and second language acquisition and learning; and
  • Knowledgeable about curriculum standards.

Consequently, any professional development program for teachers of English language learners must address these characteristics.

Professional Development Can be Enhanced through a Technology Enriched Environment

Concerns have been raised that pulling teachers out for a prolonged number of days affects the quality of instruction in those classrooms. These concerns are supported by a lack of a well-prepared substitute pool. Schools are faced with a dilemma: lack of qualified substitutes and the critical need for professional development, which typically requires teachers to be out of the classroom.

Technology can bring professional development to the classroom and offer many opportunities for teachers to learn and grow. The amount of time for teachers to be out of their classrooms can be minimized.

Furthermore, educators can learn at their own pace and on their own time. Timely access to information and flexibility add to the potential of technology to address the professional development challenge.

The use of technology has greatly enhanced the traditional live workshop, but it will never replace the one-on-one interaction that is central to effective communication. The workshop provides opportunities to produce together with guidance from an expert and to be challenged cognitively to produce responses to problems. Guidance during the application process can be provided through technology.

Professional Development Must be Partnered with a Strong Curriculum

A research-proven curriculum customized for a diverse student population is a prerequisite for student success. Like many other states, Texas has a standards-based curriculum that must be adhered to by all teachers. Texas tests all of its students on these standards. Students who fail to meet minimum expectations do not graduate or pass to the next grade.

Professional development topics must be connected to these standards and equip teachers to use them to prepare their daily lesson plans. Successful teachers align their teaching to these standards, and their students do well on the state standardized tests.

Professional Development is Critical in an Accountability System

An accountability system that ignores the value of professional development is flawed and is not consistent with what we know about factors that contribute to student success. The No Child Left Behind Act has tightened the requirements by specifying acceptable rates of progress to ensure that all groups of students succeed in school. Student performance data must be disaggregated by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited-English-proficiency.

The Texas Education Agency has similar requirements for schools to be rated as acceptable, recognized or exemplary. Educators must rely on quality teaching to achieve these results.

Quality teaching is the result of strong teacher support, the right teaching strategies and techniques, a strong curriculum and teachers’ high expectation and positive attitudes toward diversity.

Policies Are Needed to Support Professional Development

Policies should support in-service education as a means of keeping teachers up-to-date on new knowledge, research and skills that create learning opportunities for a diverse student population. Policies that strengthen any school improvement initiative aimed at improving student achievement and removing the educational gaps among different student groups must be formulated and implemented at once. Such policies include the following.

Make Professional Development (In-service Education) a Priority

This ensures that a significant portion of the federal budget to education is allocated to the development and enhancement of teacher quality in our schools. In addition, all education programs funded by the federal government should require a significant amount of attention and resources to professional development of existing and future educators.

Establish a Standards-based Approach in Defining Professional Development for Teachers in Schools with Diverse Student Populations

This ensures that all teachers working with diverse student populations are knowledgeable of the different cultures represented in their school, value and respect other cultures, use the community as a resource, are familiar with the research on effective methods and techniques, and can identify and use appropriate assessment instruments. These standards will be supported with a mechanism for evaluating and assessing the effectiveness of professional development activities on the achievement of all students.

Provide Time and Resources for Teachers and Other Educators to Participate in Professional Development

School districts provide a minimum number of days for professional development. The time allocated and vehicles used to provide professional development should be reconsidered and should generally be expanded. Districts should provide other resources, such as journals, video tapes, and video conferences, through which teachers can participate. The Texas state requirement barely meets the minimum for a complete and effective professional development program.

Provide Flexibility to Allocate Greater Portions of Federal and State Funding for Professional Development Related to Education of Diverse Student Groups

Reconsider the allocations made for professional development. The fact remains that the student body is becoming more culturally diverse as years go by. Not all teachers who will at some point work with culturally diverse students are prepared to serve these students. Therefore, it is imperative that schools initiate professional development programs that target topics related to this issue.


Although the federal government has asked states to put a highly-qualified teacher in every public school classroom by 2005, funding is not sufficient to meet the challenge. It is a common assumption that all teachers are adequately prepared when, in fact, many are not. The issue becomes even more acute when it is evident that knowledge and understanding of the implications of a diverse student body are lacking in many teacher preparation programs. Failing to provide students with a qualified teacher is a major factor in the struggle for student high academic achievement.

Why Should I Care about Teacher Quality?

  • If you have school-age children, you should be concerned that they are taught by teachers who are consistently upgrading their knowledge and skills to ensure that your children get the best education.
  • If you are a taxpayer in the school district, you should be concerned about the net gain of your investment in education. Any successful investor searches for an investment broker who is knowledgeable and skillful and is responsible for the success of his or her investments.
  • If you are a new or transfer teacher, you should be concerned that the school provides you the opportunities to grow and become a great teacher.
  • If you are a minority parent, you should be concerned about the quality of instruction that your children get so they have the same learning opportunities to demonstrate academic success.
  • If you are an investor in the community, you should be concerned with a school that does not produce enough high school and college graduates for an efficient and productive workforce.
  • If you are a citizen who cares for the betterment of your community, you will be concerned for all the reasons stated in the box below.

Did You Know?

  • There is a strong connection between student achievement and teacher quality.
  • The better prepared and updated a teacher is, the greater the academic achievement of students.
  • Achievement gaps between minority and White students are primarily attributed to teacher quality.
  • Financial investment in developing teacher expertise yields greater achievement gains than investment in other resources.
  • In spite of all the research supporting the training of teachers, there is still federal pressure to reduce the number of centers providing training and technical assistance to school districts.
  • Investment in developing teacher expertise is declining, and steps are being taken to diminish the number of training opportunities provided to teachers.
  • Teachers who lack the knowledge and understanding of the implications of a diverse student body fail to provide adequate learning opportunities to minority students.
  • There is a 40 percent variance in student test scores in reading and math that is attributed to teacher quality.
  • Teacher quality, when combined with small class size at the elementary school level, has an even more dramatic impact on student achievement.
  • The federal government has asked states to put a highly-qualified teacher in every public school classroom by 2005.


Ball, D.L., and L. Darling-Hammond. Teaching for High Standards: What Policymakers Need to Know and Be Able to Do (Washington, D.C.: National Commission of Teaching and America’s Future and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1998).

Clair, N., and C.T. Adger. Professional Development for Teachers in Culturally Diverse Classrooms (Washington, D.C.: ERIC Digest, 1999).

Darling-Hammond, L. Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, 1999).

Darling-Hammond, L. Professional Development for Teachers: Setting the Stage for Learning from Teaching (Santa Cruz, Calif.: Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, Initiative on Teaching and California’s Future, 1999).

Ferguson, P., and S.T. Womack. “The Impact of Subject Matter and Education Coursework on Teaching Performance,” Journal of Teacher Education (1993).

Ferguson, R. “Paying for Public Education: New Evidence on How and Why Money Matters,” Harvard Journal of Legislation (1991).

Gonzalez, J., and L. Darling-Hammond. New Concepts for New Challenges: Professional Development for Teachers of Immigrant Youth (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1997).

McRobbie, J. Career-Long Teacher Development Practices that Make Sense (San Francisco, Calif.; WestEd, 2001).

Mizell, H. “The Paradox of State School Reform,” Remarks made on June 13, 2002, at the conference “Professional Development and State Policy: Encouraging High Quality Staff Development” held in Kansas City, Missouri (2002).

Zimmerman, J. When the Journey is its Own Reward: Supporting National Board Candidates (San Francisco, Calif.: WestEd, 2000).

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]