Teacher Preparation

New Teacher-Grant Program Could Herald Federal Shift

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 29, 2011 5 min read
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Several high-profile teacher-training and -professional-development groups that recently lost federal set-asides—from Teach For America to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—will have an opportunity to recapture some of that funding under the terms of a newly unveiled $25 million federal competition. (“Programs Suffer Cuts in Funding,” March 9, 2011.)

Yet unanswered is how many other groups will even be eligible to apply under the terms of the tightly written competition, which prioritizes activities similar to those of the formerly financed groups, is open only to national nonprofit organizations, and requires applicants to cite research evidence of their effectiveness.

“It’s a carve-out program that rewards programs with records of success,” said David A. DeSchryver, an expert on federal education grants. “They clearly have certain programs in mind, and they are investing in these through competitive grants.”

Deemed the Supporting Effective Educator Development, or SEED grants, the initiative comes as the U.S. Department of Education’s first new competitive teacher-quality program since the Teacher Incentive Fund, designed to create merit-pay programs, debuted in 2006.

Lost Funding

Several teacher- and principal-training programs that lost set-asides in the fiscal 2011 budget could benefit from a new federal grant program. Their fiscal 2010 awards were:

Teach For America:
$18 million

New Leaders for New Schools:
$5 million

Advanced Credentialing (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards):
$10.6 million

National Writing Project:
$25.6 million

SOURCE: Education Week

Established under the terms of a funding measure Congress passed in April, the SEED competition is eligible to national nonprofit organizations active in multiple states, a stipulation that would put many universities out of the running.

Applicants must meet one of three absolute priorities, which are similar to activities carried out by programs that lost their earmarks during the fiscal 2011 budget cycle. They include selective teacher and principal training for educators in high-need communities, English/language arts professional development with a focus on writing, and advanced credentialing or certification.

Plans to Apply

All applicants must cite “moderate evidence” of their effectiveness, which means they must have been studied using at least one experimental or quasi-experimental methodology allowing for some limited cause-and-effect conclusions. Applicants can score extra points for having stronger research designs, such as meeting the standards of the federal What Works Clearinghouse, or those whose findings permit greater generalizability.

Mr. DeSchryver, now a vice president for education policy at White Board Advisors, a Washington-based consultancy, likened the competition to the federal Investing in Innovation program. Created by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, i3 also required research evidence.

“Grants are moving closer toward investments with a likelihood of success,” he said. “Given the increasing scarcity of federal dollars, that is not a surprise.”

Education Department officials said the SEED notice was not written with the formerly earmarked programs in mind. All applications will be scored by outside peer reviewers, they noted.

“Those organizations may apply, but it’s an open competition,” said Soumya Sathya, a program officer in the office of innovation and improvement’s teacher-quality division. “We’re just hoping to see some strong, innovative, evidence-based approaches to teacher training.”

The competition was welcomed by several of the organizations that formerly received set-asides.

Cuts to site awards and personnel have allowed the National Writing Project to continue supporting its nearly 200 sites. Its director, Sharon J. Washington, praised the competition for recognizing writing professional development.

“I feel it’s a sign of support and a recognition of the value of the National Writing Project and the work that’s happening in schools all around the nation from amazing teachers who are really making a difference on student achievement in writing,” Ms. Washington said.

Even if successful in the competition, she added, her organization still faces challenging questions: “How do we go forward as a national network if our funding structure has totally changed? What does this mean for value? What is the role of the national office if we’re not able to give as large site grants?”

National-board officials said they’ll continue to support initiatives to help teams of teachers go through the board-certification process together, or to use parts of the assessment as the basis of school-based professional development.

“We’ve found that seems to have the most impact,” said Seth P. Gerson, the NBPTS’ government-relations director. “It’s those kinds of efforts we’re looking to really expand, as opposed to individual teachers working in silos.”

Several of the organizations’ activities have been extensively studied. TFA was a top winner in the i3 competition, while a 2008 National Research Panel report linked national-board certification to student achievement. The National Writing Project, in the meantime, is currently wrapping up a random-assignment study.

A Harbinger?

The SEED competition also could mark the beginning of a slow but steady shift from formula teacher-quality funding to competitions.

Appropriators reserved the money for the SEED competition by slicing off 1 percent of the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program, or Title II-A of the No Child Left Behind Act. The $2.5 million funding stream goes to every state and nearly all districts.

The SEED set-aside is poised to grow considerably in fiscal 2012. Under the terms of a measure recently approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the SEED set-aside would increase to 5 percent of the Title II-A grant, or approximately $125 million.

A bipartisan group of more than 25 senators and 50 representatives has endorsed the movement, as has Chiefs for Change, a coalition of 10 state superintendents who support more rigorous teacher training and evaluation.

For several years running, the Obama administration has advocated moving some formula-grant teacher-quality funding into competitions. And the idea has appealed to Republican lawmakers as well: A teacher-quality proposal introduced by three GOP senators would create a program within Title II for nonprofits to carry out teacher- and principal-preparation programs.

Though supportive of better professional development, groups including the National Education Association have opposed the conversion of formula funds into competitive grants.

Applications for SEED are due Nov. 7, and awards are expected in January.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher-Training Grant Program Could Mark Shift in Federal Policy

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