Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for basic education, provides funds that are supposed to support state- and district-level initiatives to improve the quality of teachers and principals and, therefore, educational outcomes for students. It’s a good idea. Short of changing a student’s parents, which education policy can’t really do, the best thing you can do for a student is upgrade him or her from a low-performing teacher to an average one, or from an average teacher to a high-performing one.
But as is ever the case with government programs, though it would be worth spending a lot of money on initiatives that actually achieved this purpose, what we’re currently doing is spending a modest amount on initiatives that mostly don’t work. As Robin Chait and Raegan Miller write, there’s very little focus on efficacy in making these decisions:
Specifically, in the 2008-09 school year, districts used 39 percent of funds to support professional development activities for teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators, and 38 percent of funds to pay highly qualified teachers to reduce class size. Districts have used their Title II, Part A funds primarily to support professional development and class-size reduction since they were first surveyed in the 2002-03 school year, but they have reduced their spending on class-size reduction and increased spending on professional development during that time period. [...]
So it’s clear that there isn’t sufficient research to help districts design effective professional development programs. The research that does exist finds that the duration of professional development is extremely important, and from all indications, most professional development programs are not of sufficient duration.
Not good. The class size reduction stuff isn’t much better either. Smaller classes can have positive effects, but the effect is much smaller than the impact of having effective teachers. In other words, if you have 100 kids it’s better to have four good teachers teach them in groups of 25 than to have four good teachers and one bad one teach them in groups of 20. And not only better, it’s also cheaper. And since it’s cheaper, you could use the money you saved by not hiring the fifth teacher to make sure you pay the four good teachers enough to keep them in the classroom.