This week, President Trump released his “skinny budget” proposal, calling for wide-ranging cuts in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), including the complete elimination of funding for Title II, Part A, the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program. This is the section of the law that supports educator learning and development. To put this move in context, domestic spending generally was put on a path leading to famine, while defense spending received a truckload of donuts (a $54 billion increase, balanced off by comparable cuts in non-defense dollars). Within ESSA, among many critical reductions, the $2.4 billion for Title II, Part A, was zeroed out, along with $43 million in Teacher Quality Partnership grants and $190 million for the Striving Readers program, which also support teacher professional development. Meanwhile, the budget expands incentives for school choice by $1.4 billion.
This proposal reinforces the recurring view in recent American school “reform” that schools can be improved by competition and metrics tied to sanctions or incentives, without investments in the capacity of educators to learn how to meet the demands of new standards and the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. This perspective flies in the face of a substantial body of research showing that well-prepared teachers and principals are the most significant in-school contributors to student success. Investing wisely in teacher and principal preparation and development can improve student achievement and generate overall budget savings by reducing costs associated with low student performance (including grade retention, remediation, and higher dropout rates).
A failure to make these investments undermines progress in all kinds of schools – most especially those that serve high-need students. This includes schools of choice. For example, as we found in a Stanford study of the Milwaukee Public Schools, the initial pioneer for vouchers and charters, there were no gains in achievement over more than a decade of choice options, until a forward-looking superintendent introduced an intensive professional learning initiative that finally moved the needle on student achievement. Other research confirms the key role that well-designed professional learning plays in improvement at scale.
As ESSA was drafted in an unusually thoughtful bipartisan process, it drew on what had been learned about effective school improvement from the positive and negative lessons of the No Child Left Behind years. Title II was carefully written to encourage districts to use effective strategies, drawing on some of the best current research about the kinds of preparation and professional development that are most effective for improving teaching and school leadership. This includes research pointing to sustained, job-embedded approaches that allow teachers to work with experts and peers on curriculum and teaching strategies they develop and refine over time. It also includes strategies for principals to learn how to create collegial workplaces that support teachers’ abilities to better understand their students’ learning needs and adjust their teaching.
Title II Part A offers critically important supports for solving current teacher shortages that are reported as a “big challenge” in a majority of school districts and in more than 40 states. Shortages are especially acute in math, science, special education, bilingual/English learner education, and career technical education — and are most pronounced in the districts that serve high-needs students.
A key element of stemming these shortages is reducing turnover, which negatively affects both student achievement and school district and state budgets. One study of cost data from school districts found that nationally, replacement costs for teachers totaled $7.3 billion a year. Adjusted for inflation, that cost is approximately $8.5 billion today.
For beginning teachers, especially, research shows that this turnover is strongly associated with lack of teacher training and induction support, as well as principals’ training and effectiveness — all sources that depend on investments in professional learning specifically encouraged by Title II, Part A. This funding offers states and districts the financial leverage to implement evidence-based solutions to address those shortages and improve the quality of teachers and principals to ensure that students gain the 21st Century education and skills they need to succeed.
A reduction in these funds will decrease the extent to which states and districts can build the capacity to implement the ambitious plans they are creating to implement ESSA, to close the opportunity and achievement gaps, and to support a strong educator workforce. Research has shown that historically underserved students will suffer the most as a result of this disinvestment.
Evidence-based solutions that can currently be supported by state or local Title II, Part A funds include:
High-quality teacher preparation programs, including residencies that prepare teachers in high-need fields to teach in high-need schools with strong training and mentoring support in exchange for a service commitment. Initial studies on residencies suggest that they attract a more diverse pool of teacher candidates — twice the proportion of teachers of color as the national average — and draw them to the harder-to-staff subjects (such as math, science, special education, and bilingual education). Rigorous studies of such programs have found significantly higher retention rates for graduates of these programs and, in several studies where data were available, greater effectiveness.
Beginning teacher mentoring and induction. Strong induction and support for novice teachers can increase their retention, accelerate their professional growth, and improve student learning. The most effective induction programs include mentoring, coaching, and feedback from experienced teachers in the same subject area or grade level as the novice teacher; the opportunity for novice teachers to observe expert teachers; participate in orientation sessions, retreats, and seminars; and to be assigned reduced workloads and extra classroom assistance. Teachers who receive this set of supports tend to stay in teaching at rates more than twice those of teachers who lack them.
Loan forgiveness and service scholarship programs that increase teacher recruitment and retention. Debt loads that dissuade talented recruits from entering teaching can be offset with forgivable loans and service, scholarships, which research shows can boost recruitment and retention of high quality teachers in the fields and communities where they are most needed. In the most recent nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey, 1 in 4 former teachers who said they would consider returning to the profession cited loan forgiveness as very important in their decision to return.
Job-embedded professional development that is collaborative, focused on the content and students teachers are seeking to teach, and conducted over a sustained period of time. Often teachers develop and implement curriculum and instructional strategies with the assistance of peer coaches, collect and reflect on evidence of outcomes, and refine their practice in iterative cycles of inquiry.
Preparation and professional development programs that support principals’ ability to improve schools and to recruit and retain high quality teachers. These include principal residencies, which allow aspiring principals to learn under the wing of expert school leaders while they study how to support teaching, manage organizational development, and manage change. Such residencies appear to increase effectiveness and retention for new leaders. Title II also allows states to set aside up to 3 percent of funds for ongoing principal support and development.
In a new report on school leadership, the Learning Policy Institute highlights research showing that investments in training school leaders can yield substantial benefits in student achievement, as more skilled principals help improve instructional quality and reduce teacher turnover. Teachers often identify the quality of administrative support as more important to their decision than salaries; those who agree their administrators are supportive are less than half as likely to leave their schools as those who strongly disagree. Moreover, key factors in teachers’ professional decisions include school culture and collegial relationships, time for collaboration, and decision-making input — all areas in which the principal plays a central role.
ESSA’s Title II, Part A provides an opportunity for states to develop and implement evidence-based policies to improve teacher and leader recruitment, support, development, retention, and effectiveness, which are prerequisites for school improvement and predictors of student achievement. Without these investments, it is highly unlikely that the other ambitious goals of ESSA can be achieved.