The Impact of Two Professional Development Interventions on Early Reading Instruction and Achievement

| Michael S. Garet, Stephanie Cronen, Marian Eaton, Anja Kurki, Meredith Ludwig, Wehmah Jones, Kazuaki Uekawa, Audrey Falk, Howard Bloom, Fred Doolittle, Pei Zhu, Laura Sztejnberg

Recent research and practitioner experience highlight the vital role of teacher knowledge and skills in preparing young children academically. Professional development (PD) of teachers is viewed as a vital tool in school improvement efforts, and its importance is underscored in several major federal education initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute and numerous state and local initiatives. With the recognition that children who do not master core reading skills by the end of third grade are seriously hampered throughout their remaining academic careers, reading instruction — and the PD to support it — are increasingly a focus of districts and schools. Though there is a growing body research identifying effective (sometimes called “scientifically-based”) instructional practices, many teachers have not yet been trained on and adopted them. A national study of state and local NCLB implementation indicated that 80 percent of elementary school teachers reported participating in 24 hours or less of PD on reading instruction during a recent school year and summer. Reading and PD experts have raised a concern that this level of PD is not intensive enough to be effective and that most current PD programs do not focus enough on knowledge of key elements of reading and how children learn to read. Unfortunately, districts and schools can consult only a very limited base of rigorous scientific evidence on the effectiveness of different PD strategies.

To help states and districts make better-informed decisions about PD related to reading instruction, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned the Early Reading PD Interventions Study. It examines the impact of two research-based PD interventions for reading instruction: (1) a teacher institute series focused on reading principles and how children learn to read that began in the summer and continued through much of the school year and (2) the same institute series plus in-school coaching that focused more on how to integrate this knowledge into teaching. The PD focused specifically on second-grade reading because (1) second grade is when school districts typically administer the standardized reading tests that are needed to assess student reading skills for the evaluation and (2) later grades generally involve supplementary (pull-out) reading instruction, and the goal of the project was to improve the core reading program in participating schools. MDRC, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and REDA International, Inc., conducted the evaluation of these PD activities.

The study used a random assignment design to test the effectiveness of the two different year-long PD interventions in improving teacher knowledge of reading principles, reading instruction, and student reading achievement in high-poverty schools. The study was implemented in 90 schools in six districts (a total of 270 second-grade teachers), with equal numbers of schools randomly assigned in each district to receive the teacher institute series, the institute series plus in-school coaching, or a “business as usual” group, which participated only in the usual PD offered by the district. This design allowed the study team to determine the impact of each of the two PD interventions by comparing teacher and student outcomes in each PD group with those of the business-as-usual group — and also to determine the impact of the coaching above and beyond the institute series by comparing outcomes in schools receiving only the institutes with those also receiving the coaching.

This report describes the implementation of the PD interventions and examines their impacts at the end of the year that the PD was delivered. In addition, the study investigates the possible lagged effect of the interventions, based on outcomes data collected the year after the PD interventions concluded.

Key Findings

  • Both PD interventions produced positive impacts on teachers’ knowledge of scientifically-based reading instruction.
  • They both produced positive impacts on one of the three instructional practices promoted by the PD: explicit instruction in reading. But neither increased the use of guided student practice in reading or led teachers to move away from whole class to differentiated instruction to address students’ diverse needs.
  • The impact on explicit instruction was somewhat bigger for those offered the institute plus coaching, but this difference could be due to chance (as it was not statistically significant).
  • Neither PD intervention produced significantly higher student reading test scores than the business-as-usual schools at the end of the one-year treatment.
  • At the end of the year following the PD interventions, there were no statistically significant impacts on teacher knowledge or instructional practice or on student reading test scores.