Last month the Department of Education released findings from an annual survey of school districts regarding their spending of a $2.3 billion federal grant program that is intended to improve the quality and effectiveness of our nation’s teachers. According to the survey’s findings, three-quarters of the funds from Title II, Part A, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act support class-size reduction and professional development.
The latest report shows that over the past decade, professional development has overtaken class-size reduction as the single-largest spending category.
- In the 2002-03 school year, 57 percent of Title II, Part A funds were spent on class-size reduction, while only 27 percent of these funds were spent on professional development.
- In the 2012-13 school year, 44 percent of these funds went to professional development, while 31 percent of these funds were used for class-size reduction.
If the past use of this money is an indicator, however, it is likely that the federal investment in improving teaching under this formula grant will not actually lead to any meaningful change in the quality of instruction in the nation’s classrooms. The following research explains why:
- Efforts to reduce class size are ineffective. Shrinking the number of students in a class does not automatically translate into better learning. Evidence on class size indicates that smaller classes can, in some circumstances, improve student achievement if implemented in a focused way. Research has found, for example, that students in small kindergarten classes outperform students in regular-size classes. Unfortunately, though, the positive effects of class-size reduction are restricted to students in certain grades, according to the evidence. Thus, initiatives to reduce class sizes through a large-scale, untargeted, across-the-board program are unlikely to improve student learning.
- The effectiveness of strategies to support teachers’ professional learning is unknown. Teacher quality is the single-most-important in-school determinant of how much students learn. In fact, research shows that giving students a highly effective teacher has a much greater impact on their achievement than reducing class size. The problem, however, is that there is no real evidence showing that current professional-development strategies improve teaching and learning.
Simply put, spending more money on ineffective approaches will not yield different results.
There is still hope in professional development
In general, research shows that for professional development to have a chance at boosting student achievement, it must happen over an extended period of time in high-value forms such as coaching or collaboration that are aligned with the goals for teaching and learning. So while it is encouraging that states and districts have started to invest more Title II, Part A dollars in professional development and less in other reform efforts that have historically had less impact on student achievement, the federal government and states should do more. They need to ensure that these dollars are actually used to raise the quality of teaching in our nation’s classrooms.
This is not an easy task given the great variety of approaches across school districts. What works to improve teaching in an urban school district, for example, may not work in a rural school district, and vice versa. It is also not easy to evaluate the effectiveness of professional-development approaches. Changes in teaching may lead to greater student outcomes, but the challenge is knowing what kind of professional development leads to the kind of teaching that improves learning. And it may take months for teachers to perform the teaching practices that have the power to generate measurable improvements in achievement.
Teacher evaluation and professional development
What is promising is that new teacher-evaluation systems, if properly designed and implemented, open avenues for targeted and more-effective professional-learning opportunities. As experts note, professional-learning opportunities should be embedded into teacher-evaluation systems. Effective, rigorous teacher-evaluation systems provide substantive, tailored feedback to individual teachers that could be coupled with targeted professional development in teachers’ weakest areas in order to improve teachers’ practice and, by extension, student achievement.
The federal government and states need to revamp Title II, Part A
The way Title II, Part A funds are used needs to change substantially. The Obama administration’s proposal to reserve 25 percent of Title II, Part A funds for competitive grants to states and districts to improve educator evaluation and licensure is a modest first step, but states and districts must also be held accountable for the use of these federal dollars.
Districts should report on the effectiveness of professional-development activities by measuring improvements in classroom teaching and administrative activities that lead to increased student achievement. Clearly drawing the lines between improvements in teacher practices and improvements in student learning will help school districts focus on higher-impact professional-development activities. The federal government must also get a better grip on targeting the impact of Title II, Part A funds on efforts that work if there is any hope of them contributing to greater student achievement.
Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.
 According to the survey, “For school districts, which receive the majority of these funds, allowable uses include: recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers; offering professional development in core academic areas; promoting growth and rewarding quality teaching through mentoring, induction, and other support services; testing teachers in academic areas; and reducing class size.”
 Title II, Part A funds can be used only to pay the salaries of highly qualified teachers hired for the purpose of reducing class size. Title II, Part A funds can also, as part of an overall strategy to improve teacher quality, be used for teacher incentives—for example, to provide stipends for teachers recruited for hard-to-fill positions or to retain teachers who have been effective in helping low-achieving students succeed—or for the salaries of master teachers who provide or coordinate professional-development services for other teachers. In addition, as reasonable and necessary, Title II, Part A funds may be used to pay for substitute teachers if, and only if, those regular classroom teachers they are replacing were hired with Title II, Part A funds to reduce class size or the teachers are participating in Title II-funded “programs and activities that are designed to improve the quality of the teacher force, such as … innovative professional development programs” [Section 2123(a)(5)(A)]. Local education agencies must also ensure that the hiring of these substitutes supplements—and does not supplant—the use of local and state funds they would otherwise be spending for such substitutes.