The Effectiveness Dilemma

Image result for Teacher prep programs have mixed results but experts question President Donald Trump's decision to cut them.The most important factor in a student’s academic success is an effective teacher, most education policy experts agree. In fact, high quality instruction can counter crippling disadvantages, like those associated with low socioeconomic background.

That’s why Florida’s Palm Beach County school district, where about 65 percent of its 190,000 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, places so much emphasis on teacher preparation and professional development.

[READ: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Stumbles Into New Role]

“As a superintendent, the better you hire and the better you develop, the better the outcomes,” says Robert Avossa, superintendent of Palm Beach County school district. “We have to invest in people and we have to invest in them fast and furious because the kids are coming to us more and more disadvantaged, more children from single-family homes, more children living in poverty.”

Avossa directly credits those efforts with spring boarding 21 of its 28 schools labeled “F” or “D” last year to a “C” or higher this year.

If having great teachers in the classroom is so important, why then is $2.4 billion in federal funding for teacher preparation, the third-largest federal K-12 program in the country, on the chopping block?

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal calls the program, known as Title II, Part A or the Supporting Effective Instruction grant program, “poorly targeted and spread thinly across thousands of districts with scant evidence of impact.” Its axing is one of the biggest single-line items up for elimination in the president’s sweeping $9 billion cut to federal education programs.

As it turns out, the Trump administration isn’t the first to take aim at the program, which was also a favorite punching bag of former Education Secretary Arne Duncan during the Obama era.

“At the federal level, we spend $2.5 billion a year on professional development,” Duncan said in 2012. “As I go out [and] talk to great teachers around the country, when I ask them how much is that money improving their job or development, they either laugh or they cry. They are not feeling it.”

To be sure, Duncan focused a majority of his efforts on increasing the effectiveness of teacher preparation by demanding more accountability from colleges of education, and never backed a wholesale elimination of the program. But the sentiment is the same: professional development has become a dirty word.

“Everybody agrees that the quality of a teacher is the key element,” says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, where he develops economic analyses of education issues, particularly teacher effectiveness.

“The problem with Title II is that it’s not focused on teacher effectiveness,” he says. “What it’s focused on is various guesses at what might make for more effective teachers or provide improvement in teaching. But there’s very little evidence that the funds have been used very well.”

That’s largely because the federal government doesn’t require states and school districts to assess the effectiveness of how their Title II dollars for teacher preparation are spent. Instead, they simply ask school districts to report what type of activity they use those dollars for – and that can be something as generic as “professional development.”

According to New America, a policy think-tank in Washington, 47 percent of Title II dollars went to professional development during the 2014-2015 school year, while 30 percent went to class-size reduction. The category “Other” accounted for 16 percent of Title II dollars, while 6 percent went to growth and quality teaching.

Such broad buckets, policy experts explain, have made it difficult to understand what specific types of teacher preparation have had the most positive impacts on student achievement. And that, in turn, makes is difficult for states and school districts to replicate the most successful efforts.

Case in point: A 2014 study from the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences identified and screened 910 research studies for effectiveness of math professional development approaches. Of the 910 studies, 643 examined professional development approaches related to math in grades K-12. Of the 643 studies, only 32 focused primarily on math professional development provided to teachers and used a robust enough research design for examining effectiveness. Five of those met benchmarked evidence standards, and of those five, only two found positive effects on students’ math proficiency.

“Professional development is one of the sorry bits of education policy because it sounds good and everybody would like to be able to take our current teachers and make them better, but all of the evidence is pretty clear that we don’t know how to provide professional development on a consistent broad scale,” Hanushek says. “And in most districts professional development is kind of a joke.”

Many education policy experts agree that eliminating the funding wholesale is not the answer.

“The largest in-school factors affecting student achievement are teachers followed by principals, so to dial back resources intended to support those individuals seems really short sighted,” says Melissa Tooley, director of PreK-12 Educator Quality at New America.

For districts like Palm Beach, where professional development has led directly to measureable results, eliminating funding at a time when its most disadvantaged students are also its fastest-growing population of students, seems counter intuitive, says Avossa.

“Those are challenges we are able and willing to accept, but we need the funding and support to keep fighting that battle because it’s not getting easier,” he says. “It’s getting harder.”

Moreover, he says, the proposed budget cuts are not abstract.

“The majority of the district’s budget is eaten up by salary, transporting children, electricity bills,” Avossa says. “Very little money is left for school systems to be strategic about the development and growth of their people.”

Indeed, the district received $7.3 million in Title II funding during the 2016-2017 school year. If the proposed elimination come to fruition, Palm Beach schools are set to lose out on a whopping $8.3 million next school year – dollars have already been budgeted for a host of services, including funding more than 50 positions that support reading, math and science programs, a team of principal coaches, a team of professional development personnel and positions in the district’s recruiting and retention department.

“I would like for people to understand this is an investment,” says Avossa. “It’s not just a line item on a big spreadsheet and people trying to balance a budget. We’re talking about students who rely on education to improve their own state and improve their own communities, and the only way to get that is to invest in public schools.”

Tooley argues the administration should be looking at ways to re-envision professional development. As part of the answer, she suggests, the federal government’s reporting requirements for Title II funding should include information about the number of hours of coaching teachers receive, the qualification of the coaches, whether the coaches are providing training relevant to teachers’ subjects and other valuable information.

“I think a better role for the administration would be to provide some really clear guidance and collect data on what schools are doing in order to hold them accountable to make sure they are following through,” she says.

Some education policy analysts, like Hanushek, are skeptical.

“There is very little evidence that if you require states to provide evidence that it would get better,” he says. “It’s not like all funds are all of a sudden used effectively just because we have measures of performance.”

To be sure, Hanushek doesn’t favor eliminating the funding either. Rather, he says, states and districts should be required to use them in a more effective and thoughtful way – a way that can be closely linked to student outcomes.

“We want to find a way to make sure we aren’t taking money away from districts using it effectively, but that doesn’t justify giving it to districts that aren’t using it effectively,” Hanushek says.