The 7 deadly sins of donor-funded teacher professional development

Well-meaning development actors can still make mistakes in how they support teacher training in developing countries. Find out what these 7 sins of omission and commission are and how we could avoid them.

January 02, 2020 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
6 minute read
A teacher helps his students in class. Niger
A teacher helps his students in class. Niger.
GPE/Kelley Lynch

Why is so much donor-funded teacher professional development so problematic?

We can point to weak systems with poorly prepared teachers and a lack of resources. This certainly makes the challenges more difficult, but it doesn’t entirely excuse the problematic nature of so much donor-funded teacher professional development (TPD).

Rather, as I argue here, whether through ignorance, inadvertence, obliviousness or design, those of us who fund, design and implement teacher professional development often commit sins of omission—ignoring what research tells us is necessary—or sins of commission—enacting practices that may be detrimental to the very teachers we purport to assist.  

This blog anatomizes seven incarnations of these sins.

#1: Idolatry 

In donor-funded TPD, the focus is arithmetical, not educational. The most important indicator is “numbers of teachers trained.” This is an input, but we treat it as an output and we worship it as a measure of success, conflating numbers with impact.

This fetishism elevates quantity over quality and drives the use of training mechanisms (like the cascade approach) that we know don’t work but that help us reach that most sacred of metrics—“numbers of teachers trained.”

Idolatry of numbers is the foundational sin of donor-funded TPD, accompanied by its own iconographic language and incantations (“scale,” “reach,” “sustainability”). It is also deterministic—driving the transgressions below.

#2: Parsimony

In many areas of life, less is more. But when it comes to teacher professional development, less is less and more is more. Experimental studies show that more—not less—professional development yields better student learning outcomes (Wei et al. 2009; Yoon, et al. 2007). 

More time for TPD allows teachers to do more. For example, sustained TPD can accommodate in-depth study of particular areas of practice, help teachers grasp the many threshold concepts of good teaching, and provide time for lesson design, practice, ongoing support and repeated interaction with new content and approaches (Darling Hammond & Bransford, 2005).  

#3: Exclusivity 

Many programs often try to “fix” poor teaching by focusing solely on one actor on the educational stage—the teacher. Yet poor teaching is not just a cause of low quality education systems; it is also a symptom.

This exclusive focus on teachers results in a dangerous reductionism causing us to ignore the many educational actors who influence teaching—principals or local education authorities. It results in misdiagnosing the root causes of poor educational achievement (for example, characterizing teacher-centered practice as an instructional issue when it may actually be a curricular or assessment one) and prescribing incorrect remedies to correct these maladies (for example, promoting learner-centered instruction when curriculum reform is what is needed.) 

By over-prescribing teacher training at the expense of larger ecosystem-related issues like leadership, organizational culture or working conditions, TPD becomes a panacea for all that ails a system. This is despite the fact that research suggests that addressing non-instructional issues may have a greater impact on improving teaching quality than innovations focused exclusively on teachers and teaching (Hanushek & Woessman, 2007). 

#4: Imposition

While many education programs focus on training as many teachers as possible, the vehicle for doing so—TPD—is often conceptualized, designed and implemented without consulting the intended end user—the teacher.  

By excluding the teacher’s voice we risk imposing one-size-fits-all interventions that do little to address the array of diverse challenges teachers face and that fail to incorporate teachers’ own knowledge and successful practices. This is TPD that is done to teachers rather than with them. As such, it is often ill fitting, ineffective—and resented.

#5 Denigration

A lot of professional development epitomizes the soft prejudice of low expectations. Teachers are tabulae rasae—“blanks to be filled in” (Highsmith, 1952), problems to be fixed. 

If we think little of teachers, we demand little, we give little, and we receive even less in return.  This teacher-as-deficit model of TPD leads us to avoid addressing areas teachers find difficult and that could have real impact—because many of us believe that teachers aren’t up for it.  The over simplification of concepts that are genuinely complex strips the rigor from much professional development and reduces interventions to clichéd language and thinking. And when teachers struggle, are confused, or fail to implement what they have learned, we take this as further evidence of their lack of ability, rather than a natural part of the learning process itself—or as a failure on our part.

#6 Hubris

Concomitant with the sin of denigration is that of hubris. If teachers are problems to be fixed, then TPD providers are the fixers of those problems—though many have never been teachers, or taught so long ago that we forget what classrooms are like, or have never taught in that teacher’s context (I’m holding up my hand at the last two).

Teacher educators who lack experience focus on information versus experiences; they cannot deeply model intended behaviors; they can’t problem solve what they’ve never experienced. They lack empathy—the capacity to "imaginatively place oneself in the in the situation of others who have had dramatically different experiences” (Paul, 2014).

Above all, hubris can produce three harmful outcomes. First is the educational version of “iatrogenic harm”—the practitioner making the patient sick, or in this case, TPD providers furnishing misinformation or modeling poor practice. Second is “pedagogical naïvety” (Miles, 1995)—promoting theoretical approaches that are irrelevant or inappropriate in certain contexts. Finally, it breaches professional trust—teachers should expect that their coach or TPD provider has both experience and expertise.

#7 Abandonment

At the very moment that teachers need the greatest support—the point of transferring learning from the idealized lab of the hotel conference room to the messy reality of the classroom—training and support often end. Teachers need supervisory support, external and peer support, and school-based models so they can, as Deborah Ball notes, have “opportunities to learn about practice in practice.” Of these, supervisory support is most critical. Research from other professions shows that employees who participate in formal trainings and report supportive organizational cultures are far more likely to transfer learning than those who do not enjoy such organizational support (Bennet et al. 1999).

These sins of poor professional development often drive out good professional development.  Bad TPD is often time delayed—its deleterious impacts are not immediately felt. As the sins of the father are visited on the son, the sins of poor professional development of the past are visited on teachers and students of the present and future.


Donor-funded teacher professional development offers access to and equity of learning experiences.  It also suffers from severe systemic weaknesses—bureaucratization, massification, depersonalization, and over-standardization—that dilute its value for intended beneficiaries.  

Yet we can still work toward reformation in three ways. First, by genuine reflection regarding our own performance, beliefs and values, as organizations and individuals, as we commit to improvement. Next, by developing a shared doctrine and epistemology about teaching, teacher learning, quality teacher professional development and change management that guides, humanizes and diversifies the funding, design and implementation of donor-funded teacher professional development.

Finally, we need faith in the teachers with whom we work, devotion to developing the very best professional learning possible, and the same infusion of mission and zeal for teaching teachers that we hold for teaching children. 

If every child deserves a great education, then every teacher deserves great professional development. Donors and contractors have a fiduciary obligation to ensure that this is always true. More importantly, they have a moral one.


Darling-Hammond, L. & Bransford, J. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Hanushek, E.A. & Woessman, L. (2007). The role of education quality in economic growth. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4122. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group.

Highsmith, P. (1952). The Price of Salt. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company.

Miles, M. (1995). Foreword. In T. R. Guskey and M. Huberman (Eds.), Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices (pp. vii–ix). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Paul, L. A. (2014). Transformative Experience. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Yoon, K.S. et al. (2007, October). Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education

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Dear Mary,
Thank you for this interesting synthetic article.
I couldn`t agree more with you on these `sins`. I strongly believe that the supportive and supervisory role of headteachers can`t be overstressed as they are the closest managers of teachers.

Very interesting breakdown. I have to agree to these points, most times and in most donor projects a lot of key success factors are overlooked.
These sins do not only apply to TPD but many other donor funded projects.
Teachers, contractors and donors have to work together to ensure the aims of the TPD are met.

I thought this was great; thoughtful, accurate, and compelling. Thank you.

Thank you for an excellent analysis of these 7 sins! I particularly liked your analysis of Exclusivity, and the example of “promoting learner-centered instruction when curriculum reform is what is needed.”
This makes me think of another sin: Conceit. I’m thinking here of the claim that there’s a ‘global learning crisis’ (which is true) and that it’s because “children are failing to learn” – which is nonsense, and also very unfair to children, since ‘learning’ is one thing ALL children invariably do, all the time. The problem is that, being generally rather smarter than fossilized education systems, children aren’t always learning what alien adults from strange societies (like urban govt departments or foreign aid agencies) think they ought to be learning. And that is partly because the alien adults have not understood that it isn’t sensible to expect children in under-resourced schools with little or no pre-school experience and education in an unfamiliar dialect (or even a completely new language) to achieve after just two years (grade 1 and grade 2) the ability to read at a level western kids need five years to achieve (2 years pre-school, I year reception class, then grades 1 and 2). So the real learning crisis is actually the failure of donors and governments to learn where the problem really lies: the conceit of curricula and assessment systems based on very different realities, leading to wasteful investments in pursuit of unachievable goals and unrealistic expectations, when what’s really needed is locally adjusted and genuinely learner-centered curricula (rather than textbook-centered memorization skills assessed by counting wcpm of previously unseen texts – “not fair, teacher, they learn that in grade 4!”).

Another one you hit out of the park, Mary. Thanks for this cogent, concise, yet comprehensive coverage of this critical topic. In a blog I posted with IIEP last year, I distinguished between teachers' intrinsic and extrinsic capacity, addressing your Sin #3, Exclusivity. I'm also drawn greatly to Sins #6 and #7, Hubris and Abandonment. Teachers have to be given opportunity (and authority) to guide parts of their own professional development. In this regard, I like to talk about supervision as a dialogic process and to place great emphasis on the regular operation of school-based education communities of practice that involve all educators. Thanks for another great contribution to our collective professional reflection.

Thank you, everyone. I'm sorry I didn't see these comments until now. Aways humbling to read people's comments and see the insights that motivations. Really this is about the larger mega-sin: expediency. We all do it (Me, too! I'm not pure!). The field is so full of good, committed, caring people but the system is industrialized and politicized.

Now that you have listed the 7 sins often committed by those providing professional development for teachers in developing countries, how about listing what to do. I have been struggling with this, editing and re-editing the professional development I provide to preschool teachers in Sierra Leone for 4 years. Maybe an on-line class, a conference session at OMEP, anything helpful would be appreciated,

In reply to by Brenda Blair

Hi Brenda,

Thanks for your questions and suggestions:

1. I was hoping the answers would be evident in the critiques, so my apologies that that they were not clear. How to fix PD: I would strongly advocate the souls searching I recommended at the end of the article. More pragmatically: We need to look at the whole education system, not just teachers. We need highly skilled people who have deep coaching and teaching experience working with teachers. IREX uses teachers to teach teachers—I think this is the way to go. We need to talk to teachers about needs and goals versus imposing on them national or donor imperatives (There’s hopefully an alignment here). We need to provide ongoing, high quality, support based PD and coaching and support; and we need to apply a “funds of knowledge” approach to teachers or an appreciative inquiry approach—viewing them as people with skills and certain experiences as opposed to barriers to be managed (especially older teachers—the ageism of our field is often breathtaking! Age does not always correlate with resistance/acceptance. Finally (here) we have to move from this project-based approach which forces us to focus only on our part of the elephant to a systems approach that targets the whole system and incorporates the efforts of ranges of stakeholders (versus the organization that won the contract).

The sticky part is the high numbers donors often want, which we can’t change. However, we can’t do more with less; we can only do less with less. Donors know this, but they live in a hyper-accountability world.

2. Other blogs that may offer answers to doing PD better (You should also check other blog posts besides mine on GPE. I can also send some other resources if you write me through EDC website):
3. I would love to see some kind of “So you want to work with teachers? Take this course then…” course. I’d be willing to be a part of it and dedicate some time pro bono to this. Do you have ideas on funding, logistics, organization? GPE maybe?

I hope I've answered everything.



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