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Education Funding Commentary

Business Invests in Professional Learning. Why Doesn’t Education?

By Deborah S. Delisle — May 16, 2017 5 min read

When I was the school superintendent in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, from 2003 to 2008, we served a highly diverse population that included children who were homeless, as well as children whose families lived in capacious mansions. Their needs were as varied as the differences in their circumstances. To meet those needs, principals met regularly with teachers to analyze students’ progress, identify their specific strengths and weaknesses, and determine how best to serve them.

They also developed professional-learning plans to ensure teachers and principals were effectively utilizing resources and expanding their knowledge base. I saw firsthand how federal Title II dollars supported professional learning in ways that mattered to our educators and, ultimately, our students.

Now, all across the country, educators are worried that they won’t have those same opportunities. They worry that not only will their professional growth suffer, but so will their students’ learning. The source of that concern is the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the $2.25 billion Title II, Part A, program, also known as Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, in the fiscal 2018 federal budget. The bipartisan deal Congress reached to fund the government until September has already slashed Title II by $294 million, which suggests President Donald Trump may win further cuts next year.

Business Invests in Professional Learning. Why Doesn’t Education?: A federal budget that guts Title II funding for teacher professional development is a bad idea, argues former school superintendent Deborah S. Delisle.

Not only is this cut at odds with the needs of teachers and students, but it also runs counter to how successful businesses operate. During his campaign, Trump argued that his success as a businessman showed he would be a good president. That claim resonated with many Americans, especially those struggling economically. The pragmatism, hard-nosed focus on the bottom line, and willingness to take calculated risks that made Trump billions would surely help “Make America Great Again.”

The cuts to this vital program are shortsighted and ill-founded, however.

As of 2012, American businesses spent more than $164 billion a year on training and talent development, according to Sarah Perez, who leads the M.B.A. for executives program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These businesses know that helping employees develop technical skills and advance their careers improves retention, motivation, engagement, and productivity. Profits at companies that invest heavily in training grow, on average, three times as fast as those of companies that fail to do so.

Talent development is even more important in education. It is well established that teacher effectiveness affects student learning more than any other school-related factor. The quality of a principal is the second-biggest contributor, and that is especially so at schools striving to improve. Poor leadership is the No. 1 reason teachers cite for requesting a transfer to a new school or quitting the profession entirely. In fact, many school districts use some of their Title II money to help principals become successful leaders.

Profits at companies that invest heavily in training grow, on average, three times as fast as those of companies that fail to do so."

In my former district, we also used Title II funds to reduce class sizes in the primary grades and provide teachers with more opportunities to interact with children in literacy, especially to attend to the enormous difference in vocabulary between disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers. We also hired literacy coaches to help teachers expand their knowledge, skills, and practices to address this literacy gap. High school teachers in small, themed schools worked collaboratively to design more student-centered practices and personalized instruction for students at different skill levels.

Regardless of how the money is spent, the Trump administration justifies eliminating the Title II program by claiming there is scant evidence that it improves student learning. That is true if one is seeking to show a direct correlation between the program and higher test scores. One big reason it’s currently impossible to show that correlation is that the federal government does not collect data on the program’s effectiveness.

However, even without hard data, Congress gave the program a strong bipartisan endorsement when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. ESSA, of which Title II is just one part, strengthened the program, redefining allowable professional-development activities to make them more effective. According to ESSA’s higher standard for professional development, sessions during which speakers drone on for hours from the front of the auditorium are out; “sustained, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused” efforts to help teachers and principals provide students with a well-rounded, rigorous education are in.

Those five criteria for high-quality professional development were not chosen lightly. They reflect characteristics supported by research on how to improve instruction.

Inspired by that language, many states are already reimagining their approach to professional learning and talent development, with a special focus on increasing equity. For example, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Dakota are planning to establish mentoring programs for new principals. Tennessee hopes to continue its Teacher Leader Network, which provides guidance to districts that want to create advancement opportunities tied to student achievement. Several states want to use new flexibility in the law to create or support teacher residencies, which allow those new to the classroom to learn the craft by working alongside experienced colleagues.

Whatever states and districts choose to do, ESSA requires them to show that their chosen strategies have been successful. This means that, over time, we should be able to identify approaches that are not making a difference for students and educators and shift resources to what is working. Essentially, Title II funding would continue to support communities of practitioners dedicated to enhancing the art and craft of teaching and leading.

Investing in talent to improve outcomes should appeal to the president, the bottom-line businessman. Failing to invest is not smart business, nor is it smart policy. Congress must reject the president’s proposal and insist that the federal government continue to support state and local investments in educators and students. All our students deserve an education that allows them to reach their potential, and our educators must be equipped to provide it. Students’ lives depend on it, and so do the strength and prosperity of our country.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2017 edition of Education Week as Professional Learning Is Valued in Business. So Why Not in Education?

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