Stipends, Training for Teachers Fuel Debate

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

Prince George's County schools are offering new teachers stipends to pay for professional development, Montgomery County is hiring instructional coaches, Fairfax and Arlington county schools will have some smaller classes and Loudoun County teachers will have the chance to take free college courses -- all thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Since 2002, Congress has provided about $16 billion under the law to help states and school systems improve the caliber of the teaching workforce, the biggest federal investment ever in teacher quality. About $30 million of these grants flowed to the Washington area last year, a Washington Post survey found.

But some education experts argue that funding across the country has been frittered away on programs that are not specially tailored to closing achievement gaps between rich and poor students or ensuring that teachers are prepared to help students meet ever-tightening academic standards.

Sandy Kress, a Texas lawyer who advised President Bush on education when the law was being drafted six years ago, said the teacher-quality grant program comes close to "a crop-duster approach . . . flying 200 yards above and throwing green out the window." Kress said lawmakers should revise the grant program so it does "a few things well instead of many things poorly."

The best-known provision of the federal law authorizes aid for disadvantaged students and requires schools to be held accountable, through annual testing, for academic results. Lesser-known provisions expanded the federal role in teacher training, principal development and related initiatives, prompted by research that shows quality of instruction is a major -- often the most important -- factor in student performance. But educators have great leeway in how they spend the money.

Local school officials said that flexibility is critical because needs vary. "It's not one size fits all," said Jamie Virga, Montgomery's associate superintendent for organizational development.

Montgomery, which received $4.7 million last summer, uses most of the federal funding to provide mentors for new or underperforming teachers. Fairfax, awarded $3.9 million, concentrates much of its money on hiring teachers to reduce class size but also steers some funding to professional development. The D.C. public school system uses its $10 million grant in part to fill a shortage of qualified teachers and provide incentives for some to earn national certification. Prince George's uses some of its $6 million grant to help new teachers meet federal standards, in addition to hiring a handful of experts to reduce class size in certain schools and training teachers in Advanced Placement instruction.

Debate has mounted over how schools across the country use such funding.

Nationwide, about half of the federal teacher-quality money was used to hire teachers to reduce class size, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey of 800 school systems in 2004-05. Federal funding for class-size reduction was a priority in the Clinton administration and has continued, although with a much lower profile, under Bush.

Critics say that putting federal dollars into class-size reduction has little to do with developing teacher talent. And although some studies have shown a link between lower class size and student achievement, several analysts and education advocates have said the federal government is not offering enough money to have a significant effect on class size.

"Class-size funding has to be applied the way research suggests," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at Education Trust, a D.C.-based advocate for better schools for disadvantaged students. "Right now, it's being spread around."

Wilkins said that the money should be concentrated in the nation's poorest schools, which are tackling pervasive achievement gaps with the least-prepared teaching workforce. Teacher-quality grants are distributed to states and districts according to formulas that factor in poverty, but the law does not guarantee that the money directly targets schools with the highest poverty rates.

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