Making the Most of Title II

“Pretty much everything you could do under No Child Left Behind is still authorized,” notes Stephen Sawchuck in a recent edition of his Education Week Teacher Beat blog that explores the differences between Title II-A in ESSA and NCLB.

I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.

I think we can do better with the more than $2 billion in Title II funding we as a nation spend annually to support effective instruction. ESSA invites states to end the cycle of paying for teaching quality programs that don’t work year in and year out, but it is unclear how many will take advantage of that opportunity.

How have we been spending these $2 billion? One national survey of school districts from 2015 shows that 47 percent of Title II funding went to professional development activities and 30 percent to class-size reduction.

Though it is designed to increase teacher knowledge and skill, much has been written about the ineffectiveness of professional development. Nearly a decade ago the Center for American Progress reported that Title II investments in professional development weren’t yielding results, a premise the Center reinforced in its 2013 critique of the program. TNTP’s 2016 report, The Mirage, reinforces these findings. TNTP suggests that the nation’s 50 largest school districts spend $2 billion dollars per year on professional development, and there is no evidence that it “consistently helps teachers improve.”

Much has been written about the importance (or lack thereof) of class-size reduction as well. I understand the passion teachers and parents have for reducing class-size. I’m a parent of school-age kids myself. I want them to get as much one-on-one attention as possible. I was also a teacher. I know that a class size of 30 students is tough to manage.

There is in fact a research base that suggests class-size reduction when it is extreme (on average 7-10 students per classroom) does have a positive impact on achievement for low-income students and students in early grades. This level of reduction is expensive, however, and school districts and other recipients of Title II funds need to ask themselves whether the expense is justified when it has become common knowledge that the single greatest in-school factor contributing to student success is the effectiveness of classroom teachers.

In the meantime, those eligible for Title II funds should consider different or additional options to conventional professional development and class-size reduction programs they have used these dollars for in the past. ESSA in fact provides 15 specific options.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that ESSA is itself cautious about the professional development and class-size reduction options; they are the only two options for which the law requires “evidence-based” approaches.

School districts and other recipients of Title II Funds need state help with these options. State agencies should consider providing guidance on what the evidence-based practices in professional development and class-size reduction actually are and detail for local educational agencies what effective practices for the other options look like as well.

There’s more states can do. ESSA requires recipients of funding to submit applications to state agencies that contain “such information as the educational agency may reasonably require” and also a “description of how the local educational agency will use data and ongoing consultation…to continually update and improve activities.” This language suggests that states should have short and long-term aspirations for their school districts and other local agencies. The law gives state departments of education latitude to ask them for evidence that their class-size reduction and professional development programs are likely to increase student achievement and/or result in stronger instructional practice.

The language also suggests that States should monitor the success of Title II district-based investments to make sure they are having an impact on student learning. Title II will be as effective only as state agencies are willing to make it—through guidance, support and accountability.

In future blogs, my colleagues and I will explore Title II in greater depth. We’ll provide our best thinking on the options districts have besides professional development and class-size reduction, including how to use Title II funds to support teacher preparation and teacher leadership reforms, and improvements to teacher evaluation systems.

In the meantime, we’ll be thinking about what we can do to help states get the best out of their local partners.

We’re all in this together in a new era of possibilities established by ESSA.

Let’s hope that a future Teacher Beat blog will read, “Pretty much everything we did under ESSA made a big difference for kids.”

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