Congress must preserve, improve professional growth for teachers

Congress must preserve, improve professional growth for teachers
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K-12 teachers have one of the most challenging jobs around. They are not only tasked with preparing our children for future success, but are increasingly burdened with responsibilities that exceed their instructional mandate, often acting as de facto counselors and social workers as growing numbers of students come to school with unmet needs.

These difficulties take a toll. A 2016 study found that the stresses of an average day in the classroom are comparable to those experienced by an emergency room physician.

But despite all that we ask of teachers and the expectations we place on them, we do not provide teachers with the same level of sustained professional development that we require for other demanding professions (such as, say, emergency room physicians). It is not surprising, then, that rates of professional dissatisfaction, teacher burnout, and attrition continue to increase, particularly in high-need school districts.

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Too often, schools and districts offer “one-shot” professional development opportunities, providing scattered half-days for independent training over the course of the academic year.

A National Center on Education Statistics study found that teachers spend less than one day on professional development in any content area over the course of the academic year. Moreover, just 18 percent of those surveyed found that training to be relevant to their work in the classroom.

Alarmingly, President Trump’s education budget and the spending plan proposed by the House of Representatives jeopardize the few professional development opportunities teachers do have available to them. Both plans completely eliminate Title II, an $2.3 billion program that funds district professional development programs. Without any Title II funding, districts will not be able to invest in ongoing training for in-service teachers. Consequently, vital professional development, such as induction programs for new educators and mentoring programs with veteran teachers, are on the chopping block. 

These proposed cuts are difficult to square with the consistent calls for school improvement and the near universal desire among education reformers to close achievement gaps that have persisted for far too long. In fact, depriving districts of funds dedicated to strengthening the teacher workforce runs counter to the project of school improvement.

Some have argued that supposedly ineffective use of Title II funds justifies ending the program. And, while there is a rationale behind the need to more effectively allocate Title II funds, that shouldn’t justify the elimination of the Title II program altogether.

In doing so, it would make it nearly impossible for schools and districts to provide the ongoing training that will ensure our teachers have the support they need to thrive. Congress and the president should instead make sure Title II supports evidence-based professional development programs with a history of success. Programs like these are evident in proven initiatives such as the New Teacher Center’s onboarding initiative, the Responsive Classrooms program and our CARE for Teachers program.

Title II-funded programs should also support teachers by helping them to build the social and emotional skills they need to manage the high stress levels inherent to their profession. As teachers assume additional roles in the classroom — from developing supportive, encouraging relationships with their classes to recognizing and addressing traumas that their students may grapple with — they need corresponding resources and support.

Finally, in view of a need for enhanced accountability, we should develop national metrics for determining what constitutes a successful professional development program. These metrics could range from teacher outcomes, such as mental and physical well-being, to students’ academic engagement and intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Districts, higher education institutions, nonprofits, and government agencies can collaborate to develop the data and evaluation systems required to ensure Title II funds are being used effectively.

The threatened elimination of the Title II program arises from a mistaken viewpoint that professional development for teachers is an expendable luxury. But, given the tremendous importance that a strong education system holds not just for our kids but for the future of our country, reducing support for the very professionals responsible for that future is a grave error.

Our teachers deserve better than to be told they are on their own.

Dr. Patricia Ann “Tish” Jennings is an associate professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is particularly focused on applying recent findings on mindfulness-based approaches to reducing teacher and student stress and improving teaching and learning environments.