The Case Against Cutting Off Our Teacher Talent Pipeline

The Case Against Cutting Off Our Teacher Talent Pipeline
Greg Eans/The Messenger-Inquirer via AP
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President Trump’s budget proposes massive spending cuts to critical—but often overlooked—funding for the preparation, training and recruitment of high-quality teachers. Title IIa of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, funded at over $2 billion for the last 15 years, including upwards of $2.9 billion under the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, would be cut to nothing.

To put the cuts in perspective, consider this: The cost of replacing and retraining workers for any business is high. Employers often peg recruiting and retraining costs at about 50% of an employee’s annual salary, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. That means the cost to replace the average teacher could be $22,500 or more.

School districts nationwide employ over three million teachers at an average salary of $45,000. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 17 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Another two to three percent retire each year. Many more change jobs, move across district lines or are placed into classrooms for new grade levels or subject areas. Meanwhile, student enrollment continues to climb. So at a moment when recruiting and training great teachers is essential, the president’s proposal slashes funding critical to building a teacher-talent pipeline.

Sadly, the cuts also come at a time when federal policy is driving a shift toward increased rigor and accountability when it comes to improving teachers’ practice. Last year’s bipartisan reform of federal education spending – the Every Student Succeeds Act – took a big step toward reforming the way that states and district spend federal dollars to prepare and support great teachers. Authors of the Every Student Succeeds Act included a focus only on activities that are “…sustained intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused…” [S.1177, §8002 (42)]. Gone are the days of stand-alone, one-and-done presentations or workshops. New federal criteria reflect the state of the art in educational research.

When the law was written, we wondered whether the newly specific federal definition of professional learning was a departure from typical practice in schools across the United States and, if so, how it might influence what schools, districts and states did next. We decided to investigate.

We gathered anonymous data from the last five school years from a representative sample of school districts across the country and analyzed the extent to which current professional learning meets the criteria set forth in the law. Researchers at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins helped ensure our methods were sound and reviewed our findings. In Bridging the Gap: Paving the Pathway from Current Practice to Exemplary Professional Learning, we chronicle our abysmal findings: over 80 percent of professional learning offerings over the last five years should be characterized as low-quality.

It would be easy to say that these data are damning. If federal funding supports low-quality training, why continue invest? The answer lies in the other 20 percent.

Our research revealed that school districts throughout the nation are engaged in on-going efforts to restructure and improve their systems for teacher professional learning. Districts like Pitt County Schools in North Carolina are making progress toward increasing the amount of time educators can spend truly mastering skills and content by diversifying learning formats and carving more time out of in-service periods for professional learning. Leaders at Harrison Central School District in New York are collaborating with teachers to solve real world challenges such as being relevant to students from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

These and other districts recognize the need to provide as much high-quality support to their teachers as possible—but they also struggle with limited resources to engage in the work required to develop and provide good professional learning. The new federal law is putting ”teeth” behind federal funding to model what works and reduce waste and return power to state and local leaders. The president’s budget, however, cuts off these reform efforts at the knees.

Congressional leaders would be wise to consider the long-term costs of short-term cuts. We are already faced with a shrinking pipeline of teachers in subjects critical to our economic growth and competitiveness. To achieve quality, school and district leaders require support for transitioning away from current practice toward new learning opportunities that are proven effective and meet the criteria in the law. Federal investments in recruiting, preparing and selecting great teachers provide critical support to fuel the alignment of our teacher talent pipeline with the demands our students will face in a dynamic economy. Instead of slashing funding, let’s first give the new law a chance to work.

Elizabeth Combs is Managing Director of the Frontline Research & Learning Institute. She began her career as an elementary school teacher and Director of Administrative and Instructional Technology at Patchogue-Medford School District before moving to Imperial Software Systems, a professional learning services company, where she eventually served as President.

Dr. Sarah Silverman, Ph.D. is Vice President at Whiteboard Advisors where she advises on education, workforce and wellness policy. Her prior work includes managing the Pre-K-12 education portfolio at National Governors Association Education and consulting with states and districts on performance management and teacher evaluation policy reform at TNTP.

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