Federal

Spending of Federal Teacher-Quality Funds Questioned

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 19, 2008 9 min read

Nearly seven years into its implementation, little information exists on whether the $3 billion the federal government spends annually on teacher quality as part of the No Child Left Behind Act has measurably improved the effectiveness of the nation’s educators, a report released yesterday concludes.

The Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting Fund—better known as Title II, Part A of NCLB—is the federal government’s second-largest K-12 investment, after the Title I grants for disadvantaged students. Ninety-five percent of the funds flow to school districts, and they come with few strings attached.

Although the fund has promoted some promising local practices, Title II, in general, “is not especially aligned with leading-edge [teacher-quality] efforts, and it’s the federal government’s big entry in this sweepstakes,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, and the report’s author.

The report comes out as teacher recruitment, training, assignment, evaluation, and compensation rise to the top of the agendas of policy groups, foundations, and policymakers.

President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on an education platform that dabbles in some of those areas, including differentiated compensation for teachers. But he has not specified the relationship of his proposals to Title II—nor indeed where he would derive the money to support them.

In his paper, Mr. Rotherham stakes out one conceptual approach that Mr. Obama and legislators could consider when they revise the program as part of the reauthorization of the NCLB law: to transform Title II into a fund for seeding innovations on the education human-capital continuum, and to disallow a handful of currently authorized activities, including class-size reduction.

Innovative Programs

Every state and nearly every school district receives a share of Title II dollars, and those entities have nearly unfettered control over how to spend the money to boost educator quality.

For some districts, Title II has paid for or expanded innovative initiatives to tackle staffing challenges.

Tennessee’s 40,000-student Hamilton County district is famous for its Benwood Initiative, begun in 1999 to move highly effective teachers into nine of the district’s most challenged elementary schools. (“Charging the Gap,” March 1, 2006.)

This year, Title II funds are expanding the venture to seven struggling middle schools. Under the initiative, only experienced teachers with demonstrated effectiveness can apply to teach in those schools. Once there, they have the opportunity to win performance-based bonuses, as well as additional rewards if they stay beyond one year.

“We have limited dollars to spend, and we feel like success doesn’t happen overnight,” said Connie Atkins, the assistant superintendent of human resources for the district. “We are looking for teachers to stay at least three years.”

In rural South Dakota, the state’s cut of Title II funds is supporting a new approach to teacher induction. A handful of districts and schools in the state are so small that same-district mentoring for novice teachers can be unfeasible, said Melody Schopp, the state director of accreditation and teacher quality.

“Some school districts do a good job of mentoring, but others have almost nothing,” she said. “[Those districts] were showing new teachers where to find the copy machine and get lunch.”

Under the initiative, rolled out for this school year, the state has assigned 94 new teachers to “virtual” mentors, drawn from its pool of nationally board-certified and award-winning educators. The mentors maintain contact with their apprentices by phone, e-mail, and a two-way video system available in each district, Ms. Schopp said.

In South Carolina, the 10,700-student Oconee County district this year began using Title II funds to subsidize the cost for paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and other district personnel to earn teaching credentials through the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence, a national alternative-route provider that allows midcareer professionals to bypass much education coursework.

The subsidy is part of a larger “grow your own” strategy for developing and retaining teachers in shortage subjects, said Rob Rhodes, the district coordinator for teacher quality.

“We get to a point where there aren’t qualified candidates available, and one reason we put the the program in place is that we’d rather have this than the alternative of having substitutes in our classrooms,” he said.

Most Money Goes Elsewhere

What unifies these examples is that they diverge from the traditional human-capital structures for preparing, assigning, and supporting teachers.

Yet a majority of the federal government’s annual $3 billion spending on teacher quality under Title II does not support similar innovations, according to the Education Sector report.

Nationally representative U.S. Department of Education survey data show that districts in 2007-08 spent 6 percent of their Title II funds on professional-growth initiatives—such as mentoring programs or incentives for teachers to pursue certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—and 4 percent on recruitment, including performance-based pay and teacher loan-forgiveness programs.

More than three-quarters of districts’ Title II allocations subsidize professional development and smaller class sizes. In his paper, Mr. Rotherham deems those activities “low leverage” because they typically lack quality-control mechanisms and reinforce traditional human-capital structures, rather than altering them.

Several officials familiar with the Title II program agree that it could benefit from tightening.

“I’d like to see more stringent guidelines around the grants,” said Barbara Moody, the Title II coordinator for Maine. She pointed out that the current program does not require districts to submit research evidence that their professional development will improve teaching and learning.

Additionally, Ms. Moody noted, unlike the pre-NCLB class-size program, districts do not have to align Title II spending on that intervention with the research base on smaller classes.

Narrowing a Program

Title II teacher-quality dollars are currently allocated according to a formula based on district enrollment and poverty status.

Lawmakers should convert part of the program into competitive grants to finance partnerships of districts, states, and local nonprofit organizations, the Education Sector paper argues. Such grants could be used to spur structural reforms on the educator human-capital continuum, including peer support, alternative teacher preparation, teacher-effectiveness metrics, and performance-based pay, it says.

The remaining funds should continue to flow by formula to low-income districts, but support a narrower menu of activities, including rigorous professional development keyed to evaluations of teachers’ needs, the report contends.

A more tailored Title II, Mr. Rotherham said, would give local officials the political cover to try potentially controversial human-capital initiatives that are allowable—but seldom pursued—under the current program.

“Essentially, this is about flipping this situation from one where only a really reform-minded superintendent can use this [grant] to do really great things, to one where everyone is forced to engage in more serious reforms,” he said.

The changes would mark a departure for a program that Bush administration officials—who generally support activities such as performance pay—thus far have been reluctant to alter, despite using their regulatory powers on other parts of the NCLB law.

“[Title II] is the consummate local control pot of money,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview last month. “Whether there are superior options to what’s being done, I’m not sure we have a big handle on that yet, which is why the [Teacher Incentive Fund] grant is so important.”

TIF is a $99 million federal performance-based-pay pilot program, far smaller than the Title II fund.

Like many popular professional-development models, the human-capital activities favored in the Education Sector report have not been extensively studied for their effects on student achievement. A retooled program, Mr. Rotherham said, should contain a stronger evaluation component.

Within the confines of the current program, Ms. Moody, the Maine Title II program official, said she has tried to help districts target their funding to activities with evidence for improving student learning. She asks districts to set measurable outcome goals in their Title II applications.

“We really can see people becoming more conscious of the fact that when they set goals in the application, they want to report outcomes with actual data rather than [information about] who’s going to participate,” she said.

In Maine’s Wells-Ogunquit district, officials have reallocated their Title II funds from smaller class sizes to a program that pairs content “coaches” with teachers and helps them interpret and use data to improve differentiated instruction.

“I think for us it’s this notion that if you want to change classroom practice, just bringing in another teacher, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee improvements,” said Edward McDonough, the superintendent of the 1,450-student district. “This model helped us get [data] in the hands of teachers in a nonthreatening way.”

Political Challenges

Last year, aside from a skirmish between House education leaders and the national teachers’ unions over a performance-pay proposal, talks on NCLB reauthorization did not focus much on Title II. (“Unions Assail Teacher Ideas in NCLB Draft,” Sept. 19, 2007.).

Nevertheless, the ideas in the Education Sector paper point toward areas of potential controversy.

The top such issue is probably money. Unless lawmakers secure new funds for the provision or devise another budget-neutral way to implement changes, a conversion of some formula funds into competitive grants would likely reduce current allocations—a politically unpopular maneuver, the paper acknowledges.

Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions have long supported federal spending for class-size reduction, and they would likely oppose an attempt to strip that intervention from Title II. Neither the National Education Association nor the American Federation of Teachers would comment for this story.

Administrators, for their part, sympathized with complaints about Title II’s expansive uses of funds, but were concerned about whether a tailored program might prove to be too restrictive.

“I’m also on a school board in a local community, so I’ve seen it from that perspective, and your needs do change from year to year,” said Ms. Schopp, the South Dakota administrator. “If you’ve got good leadership, you should be able to make good decisions.”

But one former Capitol Hill aide involved in the 2001 negotiations around Title II doubted that excising certain activities from the program would effect changes in district policies.

“Changing the description of the program, no matter how well intended, will not change the value of the program unless you set measurable goals,” said Charles Barone, a former deputy staff director for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. “There’s no way to monitor and enforce it. You have 15,000 school districts. Who’s going to audit to make sure people meet what are fairly qualitative descriptions?”

Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of the Dallas-based National Staff Development Council, agreed with the need to elevate the quality of professional development, but hopes that a retooled program won’t shortchange that activity. Her group proposes that districts direct at least 50 percent of their Title II funds to high-quality professional development.

The training, she said, is the linchpin of comprehensive human-capital reforms—“the central component that links the identification, recruitment, induction, and development of teachers.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.

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