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Does Policy Influence Mathematics and Science Teachers’ Participation in Professional Development?

by Laura M. Desimone, Thomas M. Smith & Kristie J. R. Phillips - 2007


Recent research has shown the importance of professional development for teacher learning and has documented the qualities that make professional development effective for improved instruction and student achievement. But there is little research to suggest how the policy environment shapes teachers’ choices to participate in either “effective” or “ineffective” professional development. Because No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and related reforms are making new demands on teachers, and professional development is one of the critical mechanisms by which we intend to improve our educational system, it is important that we find the most effective ways to encourage teachers to participate in the types of professional development most likely to improve their practice—and, in turn, student achievement.


In describing the policy environment on several dimensions, we seek to discover which types of policies are more or less influential in moving teachers into the types of professional development that research has shown to be most effective for improved teaching and learning. In addition, we examine whether these relationships differ for a high-stakes subject, mathematics, and a low-stakes subject, science.

We characterize the policy environment based on a theory that suggests that certain attributes of the policy environment increase policy implementation: (1) authority—the extent to which a policy is persuasive; (2) power (or accountability)—rewards and sanctions attached to a policy; (3) consistency—how aligned a policy is with other elements in the policy system; and (4) stability—how stable actors and ideas in the policy environment are.

Our analyses answer two main questions. Do attributes of the policy environment—authority, power, consistency, and stability—influence the likelihood that teachers will participate in professional development with research-based features of effectiveness, rather than classroom management or no professional development? Is this relationship between policy attributes and professional development participation different for high-stakes subjects (e.g., mathematics) than for lower stakes subjects (e.g., science)?

Research Design:

Using a national sample of high school mathematics and science teachers from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), we conduct a secondary analysis using a three-level hierarchical linear model (HLM) to predict teachers’ level of participation in different types of professional development activities.


We find that authority, not power, is associated with teachers taking the kind of professional development that we know improves teaching and learning—activities focused on subject matter content and instructional strategies, as well as active interactions with other teachers around curriculum and instruction. Similarly, we find that stability (measured by reduced teacher turnover), not the consistency of professional development with other reforms, is associated with taking effective professional development. We offer our findings to contribute to understanding how best to shape policy to provide the most useful opportunities for teacher learning.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 5, 2007, p. 1086-1122
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12896, Date Accessed: 9/16/2021 5:02:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Laura Desimone
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    LAURA DESIMONE is assistant professor of public policy and education in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University. Her research focuses on policy effects on instruction and student learning, with a focus on teacher’s professional development. Her recent publications include “Consider the Source: Response Differences Among Teachers, Principals and Districts on Survey Questions About Their Education Policy Environment,” currently in press in Educational Policy; and “The Distribution of Teaching Quality in Mathematics: Assessing Barriers to the Reform of United States Mathematics Instruction from an International Perspective,” currently in press in the American Educational Research Journal.
  • Thomas Smith
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS M. SMITH is assistant professor of public policy and education in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on how school organization and policy influence both the level and distribution of teaching quality. Recent publications include “Highly Qualified To Do What? The Relationship Between NCLB Teacher Quality Mandates and the Use of Reform-Oriented Instructional Strategies in Middle School Math” in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and “What Are the Effects of Induction and Mentoring on Beginning Teacher Turnover?” in the American Educational Research Journal.
  • Kristie Phillips
    Brigham Young University
    E-mail Author
    KRISTIE J. R. PHILLIPS is an assistant professor of sociology and education policy specialist in the Department of Sociology at Brigham Young University. Her research interests include teacher preparation, school choice, and educational outcomes as functions of peer and community effects. She also researches the effectiveness of professional development programs on school teachers and school leaders. Recent coauthored publications include “Enhancing Commitment or Tightening Control: The Function of Teacher Professional Development in an Era of Accountability” in Educational Policy.
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