This article appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. Department of Education published a proposal in the Federal Register suggesting new criteria for competitive grants under the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program. The EIR program provides an opportunity for schools to create and evaluate entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated programs to improve student achievement within a specific category of students — those designated as high-need students. 

The EIR program provides an opportunity to pilot solutions to persistent education challenges that can ultimately be expanded to serve a larger number of high-need students. The program has been funded the past three years at an average of $125 million annually.

The EIR was previously known as the Investing in Innovation Program (i3), authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under the Obama administration. I3 provided significant latitude in the strategies and priorities that grantees could address and was initially funded at $650 million; annual appropriations averaged $150 million for six years afterward. Awards were made in part to improve teacher effectiveness and to accelerate teacher practice. 

A proposed criterion for this grant cycle of the EIR program is to allow projects in which classroom teachers could receive stipends to self-select professional learning alternatives that are instructionally relevant and meet their individual needs related to instructional practices for high-need students. Additionally, teachers receiving the stipends would be allowed the flexibility to replace mandatory professional development with such teacher-directed learning, which also must be allowed to fully count toward any mandatory teacher professional development goals for certification renewals or designated professional days. 

In offering this pilot program, the Department of Education is interested to learn if teacher-directed professional development may be more effective in improving instructional practice and student outcomes than the existing professional development activities aligned to districtwide improvement goals. USDE received numerous comments on the proposal from education associations, teachers and a few members of Congress. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, noted two primary issues with the proposed EIR program stipends, referring to them as “vouchers” — a tag line used to invoke opposition to the privatization of public education efforts of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Sen. Murray objected to the potential for selection of non-evidence-based training programs and the shifting of funds away from the public school system if teachers selected external training programs. Sen. Murray further attempted to use language from the department’s own budget documents to discredit teacher-directed training. She referenced a section stating, “while some teachers report receiving stipends for professional development, the practice is not widely used and its impact is unknown.” 

Most often teachers desire tailored content, be it instructional strategies, technology training or classroom management skills to meet their immediate needs. Teachers can identify gaps in their capabilities and augment through a combination of peer-communities, mentor relationships, professional experts in their field and professional development. Opponents to teacher-directed learning say it could be difficult for individual teachers to wade through external course offerings to determine if a specific course has strong evidence of effectiveness with high-need students. 

Districts have a standing practice of listing allowable internal courses for all staff development, limiting a teacher’s ability to use district funds for external courses. And Scholastic reports that according to recent surveys, nearly all teachers want effective, ongoing, relevant professional development opportunities — with 84% desiring more professional development tailored to their needs. EIR pilot studies on self-selected professional learning opportunities would enable evaluations to commence and bridge potential gaps in accessing needed content, especially in districts that have more limited professional development content. 

Democrats point to the Every Student Succeeds Act that defines teacher professional development as “sustained, intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused.” They point out this EIR competition does not meet that standard. The proposal does state that courses are to be high-quality, and instructionally relevant, and given the lack of a prolonged study, this pilot would be a step forward in evaluating self-directed professional development. 

Supporters of the pilot initiative, including TCTA, credited the department for “entrusting teachers with professional judgment and discretion in determining their own continuing learning needs” and allowing for a “balance in the need for educator training as a function of being a school employee, with time and opportunity for professional development more closely connected with teacher instructional practice.”

Employees are often more engaged in their profession when they are empowered to have input, and are less inclined to see the value in mandatory professional development. State and local education agencies also must be involved as partners in supporting and collaborating with these pilot programs as often there are legislative barriers in regard to certification requirements. 

Some in Congress may see this proposal as a promotion of the Trump administration’s school privatization agenda, while others view it as providing a level of autonomy to the teacher profession. 

In early summer, the program changes to the EIR were submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for Review and Approval, a final step in allowing changes to the program.
This article was written by Van Scoyoc Associates, TCTA’s contracted lobby team in Washington, D.C.