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The Growing Need for Professional Development

by Andrew A. Zucker
May / June 2001


Since 1989, the NCTM's Standards have been influential in shaping the goals for mathematics education in most states and districts in America. The Standards challenge teachers to teach topics, such as probability, that had not been widely taught before and to spend more time developing students' understanding of key concepts. The standards movement raised the bar for mathematics education and therefore increased the importance of in-service professional development for teachers.

Technology also increases the need for professional development in mathematics education. Calculators and computers are used in many more mathematics classrooms now than in the 1980s. Used well, these tools help students solve complex, real-world problems and permit teachers to focus their attention on reasoning and problem solving, not solely on calculating. However, many mathematics teachers do not yet feel well prepared to integrate technology into their teaching.

Fortunately, teacher professional development is now widely recognized as a national priority, unlike in 1985, when the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, then new, was almost eliminated by Congress. A number of states now support large-scale professional development activities, some of which are excellent. As an example, a 1998 study of the National Science Foundation's Statewide Systemic Initiatives—projects based in 25 states and Puerto Rico, which as a group spent hundreds of millions of dollars on professional development—found that national standards in mathematics and science played a significant role in guiding their generally high-quality professional development activities.

We know more than we did in the 1980s about providing professional development experiences that can lead teachers to change classroom practices. A three-year study of the Eisenhower Program collected data each year from teachers in five states. The data show that professional development does change teaching practice—


  • if the activities are focused on specific higher-order teaching strategies; such as using problems that have no obvious solution;
  • if certain structural features are present; for example, if the activity is organized as a study group or as a teacher network, if teachers are involved for many hours and over a long period of time, and if several teachers who work together participate collectively; and
  • if the nature of the activities is well-designed; for example, teachers have active learning opportunities, the content focus is clear, and the ideas being promoted are aligned with state and local goals and standards.

Although we are confident that the current quality of professional development makes a real difference in mathematics classrooms, we unfortunately also know that most professional development for teachers of mathematics is not of high quality. The challenge for the education system—for principals, superintendents, mathematics supervisors, political leaders, voters, and others—is to make high-quality professional development a given that does not depend on chance, circumstance, or heroic efforts by teachers.

In some places, and for some teachers, mathematics professional development is first-rate and it results in better teaching and improved outcomes for students. But the need for high-quality professional development keeps increasing, not only because of the Standards and because of new technologies but also because of the sizable turnover that we can expect in the teaching force, the increasing heterogeneity of America's students, and growing concern about the performance of all students. Considerable work is needed to assure that high-quality professional development for mathematics teachers is the norm.


Corcoran, Thomas B., Patrick M. Shields, and Andrew A. Zucker. The SSIs and Professional Development for Teachers. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, 1998.

Knapp, Michael S., Andrew A. Zucker, Nancy E. Adelman, and Mark St. John. The Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program: An Enabling Resource for Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1991.

Porter, Andrew C., Michael S. Garet, Laura Desimone, Kwang Suk Yoon, and Beatrice F. Birman. Does Professional Development Change Teaching Practice? Results from a Three-Year Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2000.


Andy Zucker, a former mathematics teacher, is a program manager at SRI International, a nonprofit research firm. He directs evaluations of national and state education programs, and with his colleagues at SRI, he has produced award-winning materials for middle school mathematics.



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