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Professional Development for Christian School Educators and Leaders

Author: Lynn E. Swaner, EdD

Publication Date: 2016

Professional development (PD) opportunities are nearly universal in the experiences of U.S. educators, both in public school settings and in Christian schools. The question of which PD strategies are most effective has become more critical in recent years, as schools face increasing internal and external pressures to improve student outcomes and optimize instructional expenditures. As a result, many school leaders are seeking to identify PD opportunities with high return on investment (ROI) in terms of student learning and achievement.

In an effort to address this issue systematically, a comprehensive literature synthesis was commissioned by ACSI (Swaner 2016). The synthesis, which surveyed over 500 scholarly articles and resources over the past 20 years, asked the question, “What are best practices in PD for Christian school teachers and leaders?” While little research was found specific to Christian education, what was available corroborated much of the broader literature on PD in K–12 schools. A set of characteristics of effective PD were identified in the literature, as well as a range of practices for which there exists research on their effectiveness. The synthesis also reviewed the evidence for the importance of cultures of continuous improvement to the effectiveness of any PD efforts.

PD for Christian School Educators


Professional development opportunities are nearly universal in the experiences of U.S. educators, both in public school settings and in Christian schools (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009; Finn, Swezey, and Warren 2010). Nationwide spending on professional development (PD) totals billions of dollars, which makes PD for educators "big business" (Hill 2009). Yet, despite the sizeable investment of time and resources, teachers generally report dissatisfaction with PD experiences, particularly with short-term workshops, which comprise the majority of PD offerings (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009). Moreover, both practitioners and researchers are uncertain as to what constitutes effective PD. According to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (2011), even after nearly five decades of research, "Parsing the strengths and weaknesses of the vast array of programs that purport to invest in teachers' knowledge and skills continues to be a challenge" (1).

A number of issues in practice and research have contributed to this challenge, such as a lack of a shared definition for most PD practices; use of varying metrics to determine PD effectiveness (e.g., increased teacher knowledge, changed instructional practice, and student achievement gains); a myriad of program and study designs, that renders comparison of findings across the research difficult; and the complexity of PD programs and settings, which makes PD effectiveness an equally complex phenomenon to study. In an effort to address these problems systematically, a literature synthesis—involving extensive searches of the academic literature and analysis of over 500 studies and documents—was conducted, with the following guiding question: "What are the best frameworks and practices in professional development for Christian school teachers and leaders?"

To answer this question, this synthesis organizes findings from the literature into four distinct lines of investigation: first, mapping the landscape of PD in the U.S. (including history, models, conceptual frameworks, and PD in Christian schools); second, examining the evidence for program components (such as content focus, active learning, and duration) that may contribute to PD effectiveness; third, reviewing the research base for a number of specific PD practices; and fourth, encapsulating the research on PD for school leaders.

The Professional Development Landscape

In surveying the landscape of PD programs and related research, three broad time periods can be identified over the last five decades. In the first, the school restructuring era (from the 1960s to the mid-1990s), federal legislation provided funding for PD as a means of improving schools to produce better student outcomes. Schools imported PD methods directly from the business world during this period, which resulted in a prevalence of training workshops, conferences, and train-the-trainer approaches, all of which are categorized in the literature as "standardized PD" (Hooker 2008; Gaible and Burns 2005). PD effectiveness was typically evaluated by measuring teacher satisfaction with PD experiences, with little attention paid to the outcomes of PD for teacher practice or student achievement.

In the "reform" era (Stewart 2014; Desimone 2009), from the mid-1990s until approximately 2010, legislation continued to shape the PD terrain by calling for more job-embedded PD forms like coaching and mentoring, along with evaluation of programs based on gains in student achievement. The growth of adult learning theory during this time also bolstered and provided a conceptual base for these "site-based" forms of PD (Hooker 2008; Gaible and Burns 2005), by suggesting that teachers learn best by integrating experience, reflection, and action in an iterative cycle (Kolb 1984, 1999; Hutchings and Wutzdorff 1998); focusing on authentic problems of practice through reflection-in-action (Schön 1987; Garvin 2000); engaging in learning that not only impacts practice but also transforms professional identity (Mezirow 1991); and learning from and alongside colleagues in the social context of schools (Wenger 1998). Online PD formats became more prevalent as Internet use expanded, which offered new opportunities for "self-directed PD" (Hooker 2008; Gaible and Burns 2005) as educators participated in webinars, online discussion groups, and virtual learning communities. During this time period the role of school leaders began to shift as well, away from managerial and operational functions toward instructional leadership. Finally, research methodologies focused on specific components or features of PD experiences that might contribute to their effectiveness, along with evaluating program impact on student achievement (particularly in urban and low-performing schools).

The most recent period, from 2010 until the present, is termed by this synthesis the accountability era. Since the inception of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010, PD across the country has moved toward training teachers in CCSS implementation and related assessment (Hill, Beisiegel, and Jacob 2013). Additionally, in the wake of the 2008 recession and reduced PD funding, the demand for cost-efficient approaches to staff development has grown stronger. Taken together, CCSS implementation and budgetary constraints may be contributing factors as to why less-expensive, short-term workshops still seem to predominate the PD landscape (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009), even though job-embedded forms of PD were widely heralded during the preceding era. Overall, the present period is marked by increased pressure on schools by states, the federal government, and the public to be accountable for both student outcomes and instructional expenditures. Thus while the search for effective PD has characterized each of the preceding eras, the pressure to identify PD opportunities with high return on investment (ROI)—now almost exclusively measured by student achievement gains—is more urgent than ever.

While not operating under the same constraints as public schools, private schools have not been isolated from these developments over time. Though there are very few empirical studies of PD in Christian schools specifically, what exists suggests that such PD mirrors the larger landscape in American education. Survey research from different parts of the U.S. confirms that in-service workshops still predominate in Christian school PD efforts, and that more collaborative and reflective forms of PD are least available to teachers (Headley 2003; Finn, Swezey, and Warren 2010; Neuzil and Vaughn 2010). Recent research found that PD in a sample of Christian schools did not fully meet the standards of the National Staff Development Council (2001, which are now the 2011 Learning Forward Standards for Professional Learning), and that progress is needed in providing more active, collaborative, and content-specific PD (Montoro 2013). Finally, leaders in Christian education have reported that most teachers and administrators in Christian schools remain skeptical of educational research, and are not as engaged in reform efforts as their counterparts in other educational settings (Boerema 2011). Taken together, the research suggests there is room for improvement in PD experiences in Christian school settings.

Research on Professional Development Components

From the mid-1990s until approximately 2010, during the "reform" era of PD, substantial research was conducted to identify "a core set of features of effective professional development" (Desimone 2009, 181) that could be built into any PD practice (whether workshops, coaching, mentoring, and so forth) and thereby bolster its effectiveness. Five such components, all proposed and supported by adult learning theory, figure prominently in the literature:

  1. Content focus,or a PD focus on the specific academic subject matter taught by teachers
  2. Active learning, which is the opposite of teachers passively listening to or watching a presentation of information
  3. Coherence, which most frequently is described as PD alignment with school, district, and state reform initiatives
  4. Duration, or longer time span as well as greater total number of hours spent in PD
  5. Collective participation, which entails grouping teachers who work together within the school for PD activities

Utilizing teacher self-report data, analyses of several large-scale teacher surveys provided substantial evidence that these components were linked with PD effectiveness (Garet et al. 2001; Desimone et al. 2002). The findings of these studies were correlational in nature, however, and did not provide causal data. Additionally, other research that examined outcomes like student achievement resulted in mixed findings, as did evaluations of PD programs that were designed using the five components (Hill, Beisiegel, and Jacob 2013). Other concerns with this line of research involve questions of whether other components might be equally if not more important for PD effectiveness (e.g., facilitators' skills, teacher identity), or whether a tipping point exists where enough of one component or the addition of other components creates an effective PD experience (Desimone 2009). While component-based research is therefore not conclusive, nor does it provide "sufficient specificity" from which to design PD programs (Wayne et al. 2008, 470), it does offer some "basic principles for designing professional learning that school and district leaders and policymakers would be well advised to consider" (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009, 9). In addition to their substantial face validity and endorsements from teacher self-report data, these components are sufficiently correlated with PD effectiveness to warrant their consideration as guidelines for designing PD programs.

Specific PD Formats and Practices

This literature synthesis also involved extensive and iterative searches of the literature for specific PD practices addressed most frequently in research. This process resulted in identifying the following seven broad categories of PD practices:

  • Direct-delivery approaches, which are short-term experiences like workshops, seminars, and conferences, and are often held off-site and facilitated by outside experts
  • Intensive institutes, or PD experiences with longer duration (e.g., a summer institute or yearlong seminar course) that are frequently offered through a university-school partnership and are most common in science and mathematics
  • Professional learning communities (PLCs), which are a collaborative approach to structuring teaching and learning at a school (e.g., through teacher groups, team meetings, group study) and often include a combination of other site-based approaches
  • Coaching and mentoring, which involve the pairing of two teachers (typically of unequal experience), with the purpose of supporting the teacher in need of improvement and/or help in implementing new instructional methods
  • New-teacher induction, or systematic programs for orienting new teachers in a school, which commonly feature mentoring by a more experienced teacher
  • Inquiry-based PD, including the specific practices of action research, problem-based learning (PBL), lesson study, and video-based PD, each of which engages teachers in collaborative inquiry on instruction
  • Online formats, which include synchronous courses and workshops, asynchronous webinars, online mentoring and coaching, virtual professional learning communities (VPLCs), and PD for instructional technology integration

A tremendous diversity in both program formulation and study methodologies exists for each of these practices. This is particularly the case for online formats, which can be considered more of a "delivery format" than a specific PD approach (Fishman et al. 2013) since each of the other six PD practices has been translated into online settings. Further, schools often combine two or more practices to formulate a PD program (for example, workshops plus coaching), making it difficult to disaggregate the impact of a single practice that is part of a larger PD "package."

For these reasons, it is not feasible to draw comparisons between approaches in terms of effectiveness. However, the literature provides some supportive evidence of impact for each specific practice. Though there was variance in the strength of evidence from study to study, across the research for all seven approaches, substantial evidence was found that PD participation led to positive gains in teachers' content knowledge. This was particularly true in the fields of science and mathematics, which were the most frequently studied in the literature. Additionally, all seven practices have been shown to elicit changes in teachers' instructional practice, though evidence for this outcome is not as consistent or strong as for teacher knowledge.

However, far less is known about the impact of these practices on student achievement, for a number of reasons. First, fewer studies explicitly examined student outcomes as a result of PD participation. Second, for those studies that did measure student achievement and identified a positive impact of PD, the effect size of that impact was often weak or not sufficiently isolated from other possible contributing variables to be conclusive. Finally, some studies that examined student achievement found mixed results from teachers' participation, or found no relationship at all. Taken together, the literature does not provide enough information on which "program models ... are most effective in promoting student achievement ... the need for further research on the subject is apparent" (Hanover Research 2012, 13).

School Leadership

Drago-Severson (2009) describes the challenging educational context in which school leaders currently work, and asks a key question: "Educators are expected to lead in ways in which they were never taught to lead and they themselves have never experienced. How can we help each other to develop the capacities needed to lead through the complex demands of teaching and learning?" (11). In an attempt to answer this question, this synthesis examined the literature on PD for four types of school leaders: heads of school, principals, teacher leaders, and school boards.

While there is substantial evidence in the literature that school leaders have a significant impact on teachers' experiences and student achievement (Marzano, Waters, and McNulty 2005), there is a pronounced lack of research on effective PD for these four groups. This literature synthesis found much the same as Spanneut, Tobin, and Ayers (2011), who assert, "Compared to the literature and research about the professional development of teachers, less information existed about school leaders' professional development" (3). The literature on heads of school, principals, teacher leaders, and school boards reveals that systematic PD opportunities appear to be few and far between for each, and what research exists on PD programs is primarily descriptive in nature with little to no evaluation (Orr 2007; Teitel 2006). Although calls for training and recommendations for PD formulations are issued in the literature, these tend to come in the form of advice from seasoned practitioners as opposed to empirical research (Land 2002).

While research on effective PD for school leaders is largely absent from the literature, there are a number of needs assessment studies that provide data regarding school leaders' PD needs. School leaders consistently rank instructional leadership as their primary developmental concern; this was found to be the case for heads of school (Spanneut, Tobin, and Ayers 2011), principals (Spanneut, Tobin, and Ayers 2012; Whalstrom et al. 2010), and school boards (Seiler et al. 2010). Further, while published studies on effective PD for Christian school leaders are virtually nonexistent, the literature suggests that spiritual leadership is an important additional responsibility beyond the typical duties of school leaders in other settings (Banke, Maldonado, and Lacey 2012; Keenan et al. 2007; Lowrie and Lowrie 2004). More PD opportunities for school leaders that address these needs, as well as systematic evaluation of those experiences, are needed before it becomes clearer what constitutes effective on-the-job learning for school leaders.


While this synthesis reviewed research on components of effective PD, as well as specific PD practices for teachers and school leaders, an important question arises from the literature regarding the school cultures in which these practices are situated. Some research suggests that the success of PD efforts is not dependent on the specific formulation of PD, but rather is directly linked to the presence of a schoolwide orientation toward continuous improvement. This view does not limit PD to a single practice or even a collection of practices, but rather views PD as part of a larger approach to reshape the underlying values of the school community (The New Teacher Project 2015; Deal and Peterson 2010).

In order for schools to conduct PD within a cultural context of continuous improvement, this synthesis proposes the concept of a professional development system. Such a system has the following five key elements or process steps:

  1. An instructional culture audit, which entails a cross-constituency review of current processes, practices, and outcomes relative to instruction, and that identifies instructional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT)
  2. Strategic planning for instruction, which is based on results of the instructional culture audit and includes goal setting, targeted outcomes, and metrics for success, with the aim of developing a multiyear plan that is tied to overall institutional strategic planning and incorporates resource allocation (time, personnel, funding)
  3. PD alignment, in which PD is matched with the goals of instructional strategic planning to develop a web of PD practices (reflecting sufficient content focus, active learning, coherence, duration, and collective participation) and involving all members of the school community
  4. Mechanisms for monitoring, feedback, and evaluation that are consistent, involve multiple school stakeholders, and utilize diverse measures to assess impact on targeted outcomes
  5. Supporting instructional leadership, which includes orienting school leadership around envisioning, coordinating, managing, and leading the instructional culture

Regarding this fifth element of a PD system, formal PD opportunities for instructional leaders are rare (Orr 2007; Teitel 2006). To successfully support these leaders, schools and professional organizations must develop what this synthesis terms PD for instructional leaders, to lead instructional PD. In other words, school leaders are in need of specific development opportunities in which they can learn how to better lead PD efforts at their own schools. Research suggests that school leaders' capacities for leading such PD is positively linked with better instructional outcomes (Moore and Kochan 2013; Moore et al. 2011).

While many Christian schools face financial challenges in funding PD, they also have the flexibility and freedom to set the priorities of staff development according to their unique goals and needs. In this sense, Christian schools, like many charter schools, are more nimble than public school districts when it comes to making decisions regarding PD. While a smaller budget may prevent some schools from inviting costly presenters or sending teachers and leaders to intensive institutes, it does not preclude schools from developing a coherent professional development system as outlined above. (Many of the proposed elements and process steps of such a system have little to no cost, beyond allocation of time.) Such a system will help schools to strategically invest PD resources in ways that will have the most ROI for teacher and student outcomes.

Finally, professional associations for Christian school educators and leaders can support schools in some or all of the elements and processes inherent in creating professional development systems—whether assisting in instructional culture audits or strategic planning; offering PD opportunities that could be aligned with schools' strategic plans; or providing PD to instructional leaders so that they can successfully lead their schools' instructional PD. This requires that associations shift their role from PD provider to influencing the development of instructional cultures that engage in continuous improvement. In Christian education and beyond, this approach holds promise for fully leveraging PD to impact teaching and learning.