A Tale of Two Teachers
Part 1: How the Cascade Approach Fails Teachers like Ismail
Teachers like Ismail in rural Andhra Pradesh cannot retain skills and become assets to their students when they are taught professional development using the cascade approach.
May 27, 2014 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center|

Ismail, a teacher in rural Andhra Pradesh, (1) attended a week long technology train-the-trainers workshop in Hyderabad. It was fantastic! “So much of software,” he never knew even existed. Ismail returns to his school where he is responsible for “training all the other teachers” in his block group. He is excited but not really sure what to do with what he has learned. The lab where the training was held had so much high-tech equipment; here there is computer lab, of course, but scheduling is so difficult and some of the machines don’t work. Though he receives texts from the workshop trainers, there’s no one at the school to help him practice his technology skills or push him to use what he’s learned. He’s not quite sure how to reach out to the other teachers in his block group. Plus he has so many students, so many topics to cover, and preparation for student exams. Fortunately, no one seems to have remembered his training responsibilities….

No doubt we know how Ismail’s story ends.  Over time, without pressure, practice and support, Ismail’s newly-minted skills—as he shared with me—erode. And soon what he did learn remains unapplied or at best under-applied. This is probably the most common outcome of the model of professional development in which Ismail, and millions of teachers in poor countries, participate—the cascade or train-the-trainers approach.

Supply-side professional development

For those not familiar with it, the cascade approach attempts to build a core group of master trainers or champions through one or a series of “trainings.” Those who are trained then train others, who train others, and so on. Think of the cascade as education’s version of supply-side economics, if you will, (Yes, I’ve been reading Picketty, too!) in which knowledge doesn’t simply trickle down but rather “cascades” from the top of the pyramid to teachers at the bottom of the pyramid.

As a purely theoretical model of diffusion and capacity building, the cascade has much to commend it. It promises scale—an exponential increase in the number of teachers trained. It promises sustainability—leveraging local resources to increase human and social capital in a cost-effective manner. It promises equity—democratizing access to learning for the greatest number of recipients across a system. It promises quality—training occurs in stages so outcomes can be analyzed and inputs improved stage-wise. Its most seductive feature is that it is viewed as cost effective—a small amount of investment in initial training yields a higher rate of return on initial investment. With this kind of scope, scale, sustainability and cost-effectiveness, it is little wonder that the cascade is like catnip for many donors, ministries of education, and implementing agencies.

Voodoo professional development?

Unfortunately, in practice, the cascade often fails to attain any, or many, of these outcomes. And for that reason, it may also be education’s version of “voodoo economics.” The fundamental weakness of the approach is that it runs totally counter to how teachers learn.

"Like the ancient ironsmith, Procrustes, who severed people’s limbs so they would fit to his iron bed, educational organizations often amputate and distort teacher learning so that it conforms to this fixed capacity building model."

First, the cascade relies on “trainings” (a shorthand revealing a behaviorist view of human learning) which often consist of workshops of short duration focused on skills development or knowledge acquisition. While workshops can be effective for introducing new information or develop crude knowledge, their one-to-many nature and one-size-fits-all approach renders them poor vehicles for helping teachers apply, adapt and refine that knowledge. In this Fordist, decontextualized model of professional development, teachers are essentially widgets—their needs are standardized and so too is the professional development they receive.

Second, the cascade typically lacks any mechanism for support. Formal learning ends with the workshop. The assumption is that the teacher has learned all he needs from the workshop to be able to master the innovation in his classroom. The cognitive dissonance, the logistical burdens, and the anxiety that ensue from attempting to apply new innovations are left unaddressed. Like Ismail, teachers who struggle with an innovation muddle through without support. This results in a predictable arc—high attrition (teachers, like Ismail, who never apply what they’ve learned); high latency (protracted lags between PD and actual implementation); low transfer of learning; and most damagingly to teachers and students, low-quality implementation (Ono & Ferreira, 2010; Navarro & Verdisco, 2000; Mpho & Matseliso, 2012). Because of the cascade’s multiplicative nature, this often means that bad, not good, instruction metastasizes throughout the educational system.  

Third, though often invoked as equalizing quality educational opportunities for teachers at the “bottom of the pyramid,” the cascade paradoxically promotes a Matthew Effect in terms of building human capital. In the first tier of the cascade, the most experienced and skilled teachers (“master trainers”) often receive the highest-quality professional development, in most cases from national or international experts.  

"The quality of professional development then subsequently degrades at each successive tier of the cascade as newly-trained teachers, many with unrefined knowledge and skills, teach other teachers."
Figuratively, like the pigeons in Figure 1, teachers at the higher levels of the cascade (who tend to be more experienced and skilled) “get richer”—they benefit more than teachers at lower levels (who tend to be poorer in terms of their knowledge and skills but who receive PD that is often of dubious quality).

Quantity over quality

Finally, the cascade is emblematic of how a distorted focus on scale results in an over-simplification of interventions and promotes norms of training that ill-serve the teachers we purport to help. For this reason, the cascade fails on multiple fronts.

It fails from a learning perspective because it implicitly treats teachers as widgets whose unlearning and new learning can be accomplished in a five-day workshop. It fails from a programmatic perspective because low-resource educational systems often lack qualified personnel to carry out an innovation with any degree of fidelity and/or lack mechanisms to assure quality control and accountability. If fails from a practical perspective because the cascade bypasses the key ingredient of teacher change—sustained local intervention and support. It fails from a program theory perspective because it tries to do too much for too many too quickly and with too little.

"And its cost-effectiveness? I really believe it fails here, too. The proof is in the creative accounting that everyone uses to gauge the “success” of the cascade: inputs = outcomes. We measure its success by the number of teachers trained, not by the number who actually implement what they learned, or implement with quality."
The result of such accounting legerdemain is that educational organizations repeatedly utilize a professional development model that we all know does not work, not because our teachers demand it, but because our funders expect it.

I do think that under certain conditions (the absence of research on its effectiveness notwithstanding) the cascade has a greater chance of effectiveness: If it is used in higher-capacity systems where there is accountability and support at every level of the education system; when the ideas and skills to be transmitted are simple versus complex; and most critically, when workshops are followed by intensive and ongoing support.

Quantitative easing

But to do the latter, donors and governments must either reduce the number of teachers to be instructed and/or increase the resources for support-based professional development. There is some hope. In wealthy countries, for the most part, the cascade is little used—it seen as a discredited form of teacher capacity building—and we are beginning to see, in some development contexts, an easing of the focus on the quantity of teachers trained to the quality of professional learning. One such approach, and how it helped another teacher, will be the focus of my next blog post.                                  


  1. In June, 2014, Ismail’s area will become Telangana.
  2. The image used for this blog post is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons


Mpho, M. D.  & Matseliso, M. L.  (2012). Does the cascade model work for teacher training? Analysis of teachers’ experiences. In The International Journal of Educational Sciences, 4(3): 249-254

Navarro, J.C. & Verdisco, A. (2000). Teacher training in Latin America: Innovations and trends. Washington, D.C: Inter-American Development Bank.

Ono, Y. & Ferreira, J. (2010). A case study of continuing teacher professional development through lesson study in South Africa. In The South African Journal of Education, 30: 59-74.

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Congratulations, Mary, for knocking another blog out of the park. The research about the failure of cascade training is abundant and definitive, yet the seeming efficiency of the approach continues to lure nations and donors alike. Mastery does not come with information but with practice and deliberate feedback, and these happen in the classroom. I am working from the angle of education communities of practice, providing spaces and strategies for teachers to muster their own experience and expertise to interpret any new elements they may receive in training or from some other source and to attempt these, reflect upon their use of them as well as the associated learning experience and outcomes of their students and to adjust these to test again, engaging with their peers in a process of reflective practice. Permanent action-research. Thanks for raising this in such an intelligent, clear way. I've shared it with all my AKDN education colleagues. And keep the procrustean-like analogies coming.

Thank you, Joshua. And Procrustes? It's not often an ex-Latin teacher gets to strut her stuff! :)

Thank you for this analysis. I find it somehow ironic that education experts apply cascading approaches. As if learning and professional development would be a product of transmission instead of (co)construction.

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