• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2005

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealThat there is a strong connection between student achievement and teacher quality is not a disputed issue. Coupled with other resources, such as a strong and relevant curriculum, shared leadership activities, high expectations for students, and a robust community and parent partnership, the better prepared and updated a teacher is, the greater the academic achievement of students.

In fact, academic achievement gaps between minority students and White students are primarily attributed to teacher quality. Effective teachers of minority students understand the classroom implications of a diverse student population. According to Ferguson and Womack, teacher quality, when combined with small class size at the elementary school level, has an even more dramatic impact on student achievement (1993). Furthermore, the need for teacher quality is exemplified by state and national efforts to put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005.

Teacher quality refers to the teacher’s ability to have a conclusive impact on students’ academic achievement and social development. Although heavily criticized by a number of researchers for “exacerbating historical inequities, mainly through the collateral effects of state policy, but also through a systemwide failure to accommodate the needs and abilities of English language learners,” the use of high-stakes testing remains the major measure of student academic achievement (Valenzuela, 2005).

In Texas, as in many other states, academic achievement is measured through a state-mandated test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Regardless of assessment measures currently used, the research supports the correlation of teacher quality and academic achievement (Darling-Hammond, 1999; Ferguson and Womack, 1993).

A comprehensive professional development program enhances teacher quality and represents a major vehicle that schools use to upgrade their capacity (including teachers, educational leaders and support staff) to influence positive student academic achievement. Kutner defines professional development as a process where learners “gradually acquire a body of knowledge and skills to improve the quality of teaching for learners and, ultimately, to enhance learner outcomes” (Kutner, et al., 1997). It creates seamless connections with actual practice in the classroom.

This article defines seven fundamental principles that guide an effective professional development program for schools with diverse student populations. A preceding article in the May issue of the IDRA Newsletter describes the elements that shape teacher capacity (Villarreal, 2005).

Effective professional development programs acknowledge and incorporate the following seven fundamental principles.

Professional Development is a Lifelong Process

Students are the ultimate beneficiaries of effective professional development programs in our schools. Like physicians, attorneys and accountants, teachers in today’s schools are expected to update their skills and knowledge periodically. They feel the urge to keep up to date on new teaching techniques and strategies. Volumes of information are becoming available to professionals on a daily basis. Learning is a lifelong process.

New teachers often have not been prepared well by their universities to deal with the exigencies and demands of the classroom. Teacher preparation programs at most universities are either ill preparing teachers for the realities of today’s diverse 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 be related to the real responsibilities of a good teacher. Activities must be connected to 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. Research tells us about the important leadership role that principals play in effective schools. School board members also must be knowledgeable of basic pedagogy to support policies that facilitate 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 is Based on Adult Learning Theory

A good professional development model is based on learning theories (e.g., Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, Knowles Theory of Andragogy, Roger’s Facilitation Theory, Honey and Mumford’s Learning Style Theory, Active Learning Theory and Constructivist Theory) that support adult learning activities in a sustained and coherent professional development program.

An effective professional development program provides opportunities for participants to learn about research-based best practices, use data on children and parents in designing instruction, witness effectiveness through models and examples, use and reflect on practice, design instruction and the management of instruction, share and form accountability networks with other personnel, and evaluate and be accountable for what happens in the classroom. Research supports the value of partnering teachers with mentors and coaches and compares and alludes to this relationship as “cognitive apprentices” to experts (Berryman, 1990).

Professional Development is Essential for Quality Schools for Minority Students

McLellan refers to a “situated cognition approach to learning” where knowledge is shaped by the context and culture in which it is applied (McLellan, 1996). In other words, professional development requires the application and adaptation of knowledge and cognitive skills to solve issues related to the needs of a diverse student population.

Mikulecky, et al., describe a process where teachers must witness the best practice, be able to connect new knowledge to context (knowing in action) and experience, and use their own metacognitive skills for learning to understand better the teaching process (1994).

Teachers must be provided opportunities to adapt and practice newly-learned skills in their context. Teachers also must be provided opportunities to reflect on the impact of new knowledge and skills on children’s academic achievement and on the feedback that mentors and coaches provide them.

Research tells us about the essential elements of a successful school for minority students (Gonzalez and Darling-Hammond, 1997). A standards-based approach for professional development that defines the characteristics of a good teacher in a school with a diverse student population is critical. 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, caring and cooperating with other teachers;
  • Is willing to unlearn and debunk myths (for example, “interference” of the first language, poverty as the “reason” for underachievement, and parents who “do not care” about the education of their children) that interfere with quality teaching for minority students;
  • Knowledgeable about effective assessment and teaching strategies (for example, 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.

Any professional development program for teachers of English language learners must integrate these qualities as part of the content to be addressed in any plan to upgrade teacher capacity.

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 the dilemma of dealing with the 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 offers many opportunities for teachers to learn and grow. The amount of time for teachers to be out of the classroom can be minimized through technology.

Multimedia technology offers solutions to this problem. R. Tharp states: “Multimedia technology can provide ideal conditions for learning how ideas and actions are connected. Because video images and texts are presented together, often on the same television or computer screen, the relationships among practice, research and theory are immediately apparent” (2002).

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 these standards to prepare their daily lesson plans.

Successful teachers are the ones who measure all aspects of learning and development. Their assessment of students is comprehensive and varied to measure the various levels of knowledge and skills. They align their teaching to instructional standards, and their students do well in the state standardized test. Successful teachers do not teach to the test.

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 research demonstrates about factors that contribute to student success. The No Child Left Behind Act has tightened requirements by specifying acceptable rates of progress to ensure that all groups of students – disaggregated by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability and limited English proficiency – succeed in school.

The Texas Education Agency has similar requirements for schools to remain in the “acceptable,” “recognized” and “exemplary” status levels. 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 expectations and positive attitudes toward diversity.

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) are undergoing a reconfiguration, and their potential for impact is not yet known. 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 school receiving funds to operate a federal program is required to use between 5 percent and 10 percent, inclusive, of its allocations for professional development aimed at ensuring that all teachers are highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Local education agencies and schools identified as low performing must use at least 10 percent of their allocations for professional development aimed at correcting the deficiencies that led to their identification as low performing.


Peter Senge warns of the risks inherent in top-down professional development approaches and promotes the use of collaborative teamwork approaches that foster learning organizations as the answer to solving educational problems (1994). Many professional development models reflect a deficit-driven approach where existing knowledge of teachers is not valued and teachers simply participate as consumers of knowledge with little acknowledgment of the contributions they have gained through observation and experience.

Schools are facing many challenges while formulating, implementing and integrating a comprehensive professional development program in an already full day of teaching activities. Furthermore, in spite of the strong research support for effective professional development, schools face two other major obstacles that diminish their professional development efforts.

First, there is a trend nationwide to further reduce training and technical assistance to school districts. Second, funding to develop teacher expertise at the local level is declining, and steps are being taken to diminish the number of learning and training opportunities provided to teachers.

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 is lacking. Failure to provide adequate learning opportunities to students is a major cause for underachievement. In spite of all these challenges, schools must find ways of ensuring that teacher quality is not sacrificed.


Berryman, S.E. Skills, Schools, and Signals (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, Institute on Education and the Economy, 1990).

Darling-Hammond, L. (1999). 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).

Ferguson, P., and S.T. Womack. “The Impact of Subject Matter and Education Coursework on Teaching Performance,” Journal of Teacher Education (1993) 44, 55-63.

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).

Kutner, M., and R. Sherman, J. Tibbets, L. Condelli. Evaluating Professional Development: A Framework for Adult Education (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

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

McLellan, H. “Being Digital: Implications for Education,” Educational Technology (November-December, 1996) pp. 5-20.

Mikulecky, L., and P. Albers, M. Peers. Literacy Transfer: A Review of the Literature. Technical Report TR94-05 (Philadelphia, Pa.: National Center on Adult Literacy, June 1994).

Senge, P. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1994).

Tharp, R. “Bringing Teaching Alive: Professional Development and Multimedia Technology,” Talking Leaves (Santa Cruz, Calif.: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence, Spring 2002).

Valenzuela, A. Leaving Children Behind: How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2005).

Villarreal, A. “Rethinking Professional Development as a Tool to Stimulate Teachers’ Decision Making Authority,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 2005).

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

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2005 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.]