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Bringing Professional Development Research to Light

Kellie Kim

Kellie Kim
Researcher, REL Northeast & Islands

Sun Mar 01 2020

Research has found that teachers are the most important school-level influence on student achievement.1 Professional development for educators is, therefore, a key mechanism for improving classroom instruction and students’ learning.2 The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers new opportunities for states and districts to further advance professional learning.3 It expands the allowable use of Title II funds for professional development for teachers of every subject, as well as all other school staff—from principals to librarians to paraprofessionals.4

Yet ESSA also requires that local and state-led professional development activities be evidence-based. As states prepare to implement their approved ESSA plans, there is a growing need for support regarding this issue of evidence-based professional development. Recently, REL Northeast & Islands assisted states in our region with this need by conducting a review of research on select professional development topics, culminating in an infographic that features research on one topic in particular—instructional coaching.

The process of developing that infographic began some time ago, when Title II directors from state education agencies (SEAs) in New York and Rhode Island contacted REL Northeast & Islands to ask for assistance in understanding the research on professional development activities that are allowable under ESSA. Based on discussions with the directors, REL Northeast & Islands identified three high-leverage topics of interest:

  1. Instructional content coaching, in English language arts and mathematics in particular
  2. Leadership training for teachers and school leaders
  3. Professional learning communities

To meet this need, REL Northeast & Islands systematically reviewed and summarized recent research relevant to the three topics, organizing the information in tables with four sections:

  • Overview of the study: This section summarized the programs or strategies examined in research studies. This included specific details about the participants, such as number and type of participants for both control and treatment groups, as well as primary research design of a study (i.e., experimental, quasi-experimental, correlational, or descriptive).
  • Characteristics of schools: To help the SEAs understand the contexts in which the studies took place, locale of schools, school level, and school governance—such as traditional, public, or charter—were included in this section as described in the literature.
  • Student characteristics: Any additional information on student characteristics—such as grade levels, English learner student status, special education status, or economically disadvantaged status—was also included in the summary as described in the literature.
  • Findings: A summary of the primary findings and outcomes was included in this section.

Once the research summaries were complete, REL Northeast & Islands conducted virtual coaching sessions for Title II directors and other SEA officials to enhance their capacity to interpret and apply the research. During the coaching sessions, participants reviewed the research findings for each topic, discussed how to understand and interpret the research findings, and explored how SEAs could use this information to provide guidance to districts based on their respective needs and contexts.

The research summaries developed by REL Northeast & Islands were designed to demonstrate how an SEA could conduct a similar review of the literature in the future and were, therefore, highly technical. To make the information readily accessible to broader audiences, including the Professional Learning and Development Research Alliance members who indicated interest in the topic of instructional content coaching in reading/English Language Arts (ELA), REL Northeast & Islands created an infographic. This new infographic supports schools and districts in understanding the research and evidence related to reading/ELA instructional coaching, and helps educators identify instructional coaching programs, components, and practices that are associated with academic outcomes in reading/ELA.

1Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1).

2Yoon, K.S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

3ESSA. (2015). Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, Pub. L. No. 114-95 § 114 Stat. 1177 (2015-2016).

4Learning Forward & Education Counsel (2017). A new vision for professional learning: A toolkit to help states use ESSA to advance learning and improvement systems. Retrieved from