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Note to Districts: Your Professional Development Funds May Be Slipping Away

Let’s face it: we live in an era of enormous new demands on the teaching force. With the introduction of the Common Core standards, more rigorous teacher evaluations, and an increase in student achievement data, teachers are being asked to do more, very quickly. And districts are struggling with how to support and retain a corps of excellent teachers in this new climate—on ever-tightening budgets.

So it may come as a surprise to some districts that their valuable pool of professional development money may be shrinking very soon. Recently, ERS performed a rough analysis of seven partner districts, focusing on the funding source of their direct professional development activities (Professional development defined here as training, conferences, coaching, expert support, and substitute coverage for the purposes of participating in professional growth opportunities). These districts represent a range of large urban school systems from the Northeast, Midwest and South, with 40K-123Kstudents, and a free-and-reduced-lunch population from 100% to 42%. In analyzing the results, we noticed some interesting trends: 

  • These districts are disproportionately using federal funds on professional development. While federal funds make up just 10% of the overall budget, on average, of the school systems studied here, federal funds accounted for about 50% of professional development spending in nearly every district we analyzed.
  • A large portion of that spending comes from unsustainable federal sources. From 26% to 6% of professional development spending comes from programs like Race to the Top, SIG, and ARRA that will end within the next few years. This leaves these districts with the choice to either cut PD or make hard tradeoffs to keep their current, and much needed, investment.
  • Districts with  higher concentrations of students in poverty rely more heavily on sunsetting federal funds. Districts with higher concentrations of students in poverty (typically the lowest performing districts) are already spending less per teacher, and yet they seem to be the ones most at risk of losing critical PD funding when these temporary programs sunset


Stable Federal funds includes Title I, Title II and IDEA; Non-Stable Federal funds includes ARRA, SIG and RT3

It’s worth noting that there is an outlier here—District N. Though this district is high poverty, it benefits from significantly higher overall funding than the other districts, and does not spend much on professional development in general.  While its PD expenditures aren’t reliant on unstable federal funds, the district also seems to be under-investing  in this area.

Of course, this small study is based on only seven districts; the trends reflected here may or may not apply widely. However, we think this initial finding is compelling enough to drive other districts back to their books to consider the sources of their professional development funding. Strategic school systems pay attention to the balance of sustainable and unsustainable funds, so that the crucial PD systems they are developing now can last into the future. There are also other steps that systems can take to make the most of their resources—people, time, and money—to support effective professional growth. ERS has recently offered guidance on this in our new white paper, “A New Vision for Teacher Professional Growth and Support: Six Steps to a More Powerful School System Strategy”

In this era of budget tightening, every dollar counts—especially for the neediest schools. How can schools build sustainable teacher professional development to create an excellent teaching corps?


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