More school districts are using their federal teacher-quality funding to pay for efforts to hire and retain educators, a new report shows.
The U.S. Department of Education released its 2020-21 report of state and district use of $2.1 billion in federal funds through Title II-A, the second-largest grant program in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The funding provides money to districts and states for almost any activity to improve quality and effectiveness of their educators, including teachers, principals, and other school leaders.
The Education Department also announced 22 awards, totaling $24.8 million, through the Teacher Quality Partnership grant program, the only federal program that directly funds teacher preparation programs at universities, states, and nonprofits. This year, the department expressed interest in applicants with “grow your own” programs, which work to bring new educators into the profession by recruiting members of the community.
Taken together, the two announcements reflect the agency’s new direction toward tackling local teacher shortages, and local districts’ post-pandemic need to address a dwindling supply of quality teachers.
“Districts are seeking to recruit and hire teachers who can be impactful in ensuring that students are given the additional support they need right now to make up for learning lost during the pandemic,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a teacher quality research and policy organization.
Grow your own programs receive special interest
Over the past year, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has made his interest in “grow your own” programs clear. In an interview with Education Week, the secretary strongly encouraged school districts and state education agencies to use American Rescue Plan funding to pay for those types of homegrown programs, which try to get young people and professionals to consider teaching in the same communities where they attended school.
“We have the students in front of us,” Cardona said. “What are we doing to tap those students on the shoulder and say, ‘Here’s a program in your high school that could get you interested in teaching, that could get you some college credits, could get you some scholarship money and we can guarantee you an interview in this district in four years?’”
The Education Department doubled down on that interest with this year’s TQP grant priorities. In this year’s competition guidelines, it said it was especially interested in grow-your-own programs.
Cardona also emphasized the value of grow your own and apprenticeship programs during an event with first lady Jill Biden on Aug. 31, pointing to successful examples in Tennessee and Iowa. The Education Department also pointed to the strategy in a joint letter with the U.S. Department of Labor to encourage workforce leaders to take serious action to address teacher shortages.
Grow your own programs can be especially effective strategies if they operate into a new teacher’s first two years on the job, follow the research on effective teaching, and are evaluated on a regular basis, Peske said.
“Student-teaching and mentoring is critically important, we know that from the research,” Peske said.
Twenty-two universities, nonprofits, and education agencies received funding from this year’s round of TQP grants. The Three Rivers Education Foundation, an education nonprofit based in Farmington, N.M., received the highest grant award at $2.16 million, followed by the Center for Strategic Leadership and Organizational Coherence, an education nonprofit based in Massachusetts that received $2 million, and DePaul University in Chicago, which received $1.37 million.
Focus on recruitment, retention outweighs smaller class sizes
School districts have also shown a growing interest in teacher recruitment efforts, according to the department’s annual report on teacher-quality funding.
Districts spent more of their Title II-A funds on recruiting, hiring, and retaining quality teachers in 2020-21 than in 2019-20. According to the report, 34 percent of districts said they used their funds to cover the costs of hiring, recruiting, and retaining better teachers in 2020-21 with 17 percent of the total share of the money allocated to those efforts. In 2019-20, the same amount of districts—34 percent—said they used the funds to cover teacher recruitment, hiring, and retention, but the activities accounted for 15 percent of the total share of funds.
Eighty percent of districts said they used the funding to pay for professional development for teachers, which represented 57 percent of all district allocations and the most common use of the funds. That’s less than in 2019-20, 81 percent of districts used the money to pay for professional development and the strategy accounted for 59 percent of the total funding allocations.
But the report isn’t specific on which topic areas were most common for professional development. Peske said she’d like to know whether professional development is helping teachers tackle areas with the highest need. For example, professional development could help teachers learn how to improve reading and math scores after they plummeted over the pandemic.
“There may be an opportunity for districts and their local teacher-prep programs to work together to better understand the content needs that follow teachers into the classroom, and would require ongoing professional development,” Peske said. “A grow your own program could also identify the areas where teachers need more content support and help the districts prioritize the expenditures in professional development to support those content gaps.”
Other strategies were less popular. Nineteen percent of districts used Title II-A funds to pay for reduced class sizes, and the strategy accounted for 15 percent of the total allocation. In 2019-20, 21 percent of districts reported using the funds to cover the costs of class size reduction while the share of funds was also 15 percent.
For years, districts spent much of their funding on class size reduction, garnering some criticism because those efforts didn’t always include steps to hire effective teachers. But the numbers show an overall declined interest in reducing class sizes. In 2015-16, 25 percent of the overall share of funds went to class size reduction, according to the 2015-16 report.
Teacher evaluation—a priority of the Obama administration—continues to be unpopular. Only 12 percent of districts reported using Title II-A funding to pay for teacher evaluation systems in 2020-21, and the strategy made up just 2 percent of the total share of funds. That data is similar to 2019-20, during which 10 percent of districts reported using the funds for evaluation systems, and the strategy accounted for 2 percent of the total allocation.