After receiving 89 comments, including TCTA’s, on a funding priority proposed in April, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced the finalization of its plans to provide teachers with a stipend to self select professional development. The final plans incorporate suggestions made by TCTA. 

TCTA’s support of the funding priority was based on TCTA’s long-standing advocacy for teacher self-selection in professional development opportunities. TCTA believes that, as professionals who have received extensive training in a discrete body of knowledge and skills, teachers should be entrusted with professional judgment and discretion in determining their own continuing learning needs. However, 37 of the 89 commenters opposed the general idea of teacher-driven professional learning stipends, putting TCTA at odds with some of the national-level teacher groups, including NEA and AFT. For example, NEA noted that “To address the professional learning needs of teachers, schools and districts should take a more systemic approach that is informed by student data, school improvement analysis, and alignment with school and district initiatives and objectives” and that “Quality professional learning supports capacity-building in a school or district.”  AFT noted that its members wanted to engage in “collaborative” professional learning with their colleagues, and that there is no research that shows individualized professional learning works.

Fortunately, USDE largely disagreed with these views, noting that teacher have a vital role in professional learning decisions, and that the program focuses on enhancing the ways in which teachers are involved in identifying professional learning opportunities. 

One of the suggestions made by TCTA that USDE included in the finalized funding priority was to require grant applicants to include a summary of the ways in which teachers were involved in the grant application and how teachers will be involved in key decisions about the proposed project. In particular, TCTA noted that it is vitally important than an applicant provide evidence of significant teacher input in developing the plan as well as how teacher feedback was incorporated into the plan. USDE responded that it “appreciates the suggestion for honoring teacher voice and agency by recommending ways that teachers could have input on proposed projects conducted under these priorities; such input is likely to help make systems more relevant and user friendly for teachers.”

TCTA also strongly supported the Education Department’s original proposal allowing teachers to replace no less than a majority of existing mandatory professional development with teacher-directed learning, noting that in order to meaningfully enable teachers to pursue self-selected, instructionally relevant professional learning, existing mandated professional development activities must be simultaneously reduced. However, due to public comments expressing concern that this allowance would impede the need for states and local leaders to systematically prioritize professional learning based on educational plans and organizational needs, the department changed the requirement in the final version to a requirement that teachers be allowed to replace a ‘‘significant portion (no less than 20 percent) of existing mandatory professional development.”

Reflective of the tension between the view that school and district needs should dictate teacher professional learning and the view that, as professionals, teachers must be able to direct a significant portion of their learning, a few commenters noted that without a mechanism to sufficiently address districtwide or schoolwide needs, professional learning could be disjointed (some teachers having training on a districtwide program and others not), incoherent (teacher-selected learning conflicting with locally determined approach), or incomplete (important topics being ignored). 

Of particular concern though, were comments that the concept of teacher-driven professional learning assumes that teachers know what kinds of professional development they need but that they need guidance and support from school and district leaders to identify areas for growth. Fortunately, in response, the department noted that it “highly respects the teaching profession and teachers as professionals. As such, we believe that the teachers who request a stipend are likely to be individuals who are reflective practitioners eager to continue to hone their craft in a way that best supports the students they teach.”

The finalized priority becomes effective August 28, 2020.