Professional Development: On the Chopping Block

Photo by U.S. Department of Education,

I love the definition of insanity often attributed to Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I think of that often when I am trying to put together one of my grandson’s new toys without success.

So does this definition of insanity resonate with educators?

In education, we often struggle with educating students with high needs such as limited English proficiency or disabilities. Schools create professional learning communities so that teachers can collaborate, share, and learn new instructional strategies to teach high need students. Education is an industry that constantly generates new knowledge and effective school leaders want to use that knowledge to improve the workforce. This is not a secret; every effective school system invests in its workforce.

So does it make sense to eliminate or significantly reduce the $2.3 billion ESSA Title II funds that states and districts use to support this professional learning? A school district’s single largest expense is its teachers and administrators. Helping these educators to continuously strengthen their practice is critical for ensuring ongoing student benefit from that district and taxpayer investment.

Is this approach of investing in your workforce considered a “giveaway” that yields no measurable impact other than placating employees?  Business and industry do not think so. In a 2014 Deloitte brief, a survey of 300 U.S. organizations in 2013 found that “organizations across the U.S. annually spent $1,169 per learner, on average, on learning and development (L&D) initiatives.” The study further found that technology companies spent $1,847 per learner, on average. Successful businesses recognize that knowledge grows and technology transforms previous “best practices.” Continuous learning is required to remain competitive.

The business literature provides extensive findings on the value of investing in employees to increase retention and create a dynamic and successful organization that employees want to be part of. Good reasons.

These findings apply equally to the education sector.

A 2016 report analyzed the pending U.S. teacher shortage. The report identifies high teacher attrition as a key factor in this shortage. Citing the 2013 School and Staffing Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, the authors indicate that 55% of teachers exiting the profession identify dissatisfaction as the key reason. Dissatisfaction, they note, includes the lack of support and professional learning opportunities—factors that professional development can help ameliorate. Yet funding for professional development is usually the first thing cut from a school budget when resources get tight.

This support is especially needed for beginning teachers where attrition rates can be as high as 40 to 50 percent during their initial years teaching. Ingersoll and his colleagues have studied the impact of providing additional support to new teachers through induction programs. Their findings indicate a link between teachers participating in induction programs and teacher retention. The most impactful support provided to new teachers is: “…having a mentor teacher from one’s subject area and having common planning or collaboration time with other teachers in one’s subject area.” Title II funds is the vehicle for many school districts to provide mentoring support for new teachers.

Even more perplexing about the proposed elimination or reduction of Title II is the clear focus throughout ESSA on the reliance on evidence-based research for all major authorized reforms, including school improvement. Evidence-based research is cited 58 times within the legislation. School improvement activities and strategies that are supported by evidence-based research will not “implement themselves.” Effective implementation often requires that educators have opportunities to learn new knowledge and practice applying new skills in the classroom. That being the case, professional development is fundamental and indispensable.

The mixed message we are getting out of Washington is “you must use more evidence-based research to improve your schools, but good luck if you’re not familiar with that research or don’t know how to implement it.” ESSA has eliminated the mandate to use one of four prescribed turnaround models (e.g., transformation, turnaround, restarts or school closure), instead allowing schools and school districts to determine their own research-based approaches. At the same time, however, they may be removing or reducing the funding for schools and school districts to meaningfully take advantage of that flexibility. This is not the better part of wisdom.