The new freedom to support teachers in ways that actually help: A user’s guide

Any parent will tell you that the skills of her child’s teacher matter as much as anything in a school. Yet for more than a decade, the limitations of the key federal fund aimed at helping teachers and principals develop those skills has been a source of consistent frustration.

Now, many of those limitations are gone — and we’re offering a guide to state Chiefs, district leaders, and everyone else about how to take advantage of newfound freedom to help teachers help kids.

Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act offers upwards of $2 billion per year to develop and strengthen the skills of the professionals who teach in and lead our schools. But despite the impressive dollar amount, you’d have a hard time finding one of those professionals who’d sing the praises of how it was spent. In part, that was because tangled, bureaucratic requirements under the No Child Left Behind law prescribed how supports should work, and allowed little connection to other efforts by schools and districts. Educators’ distaste has been borne out by the research; a serious study found precious little evidence of impact for the traditional professional development efforts that Title II funded.

The good news is, with No Child Left Behind now left behind, replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states and districts have exciting new areas of freedom to spend the money in ways that align with the best interests of teachers and students, and with states’ and districts’ other efforts to support educators.

The new law will help states and districts build on and expand some of the innovative, smart work that has emerged over recent years to prepare teachers and principals more effectively to meet the needs of all students — and particularly those in underserved groups. These efforts represent a response to the clear and authentic demand from educators for supports that make a real difference, and have gained visibility and scale thanks to the work of forward-looking state, district, and nonprofit leaders.

In place of bureaucratic requirements and specifications, the new law offers an invitation for innovation, an opportunity to develop a coherent vision of support that begins long before teachers begin working with students and runs throughout a teacher’s professional life. The law also opens the door to important new models such as hands-on “residencies” similar to medical schools.

Our new report offers a detailed and highly practical guide that lays out what’s different and how state and district leaders can take advantage of it. It walks through the types of work in which leaders can invest, and offers multiple examples of what that innovation looks like in practice today. Such examples include:

· Designing professional learning for real impact, as Louisiana has done through its Teacher Leader Advisors, which empowers teachers to become strong partners in policy development at the state level.

· Building a program of robust, personalized supports for school administrators in low-performing schools through structured mentorship and professional development opportunities, like New Mexico’s Principals Pursuing Excellence (PPE) program.

· Establishing comprehensive approaches to developing teachers and leaders, with cutting-edge research, approaches, and tools such as Summit Basecamp and the Summit Personalized Learning Platform.

Challenges to our educators’ ability to develop their skills stand as one of the most urgent problems in education. Such challenges make it harder to recruit and keep the strongest people in the profession, make it harder to get highly-skilled teachers and principals into the highest-need schools, and contribute to staff instability in those schools. The freedoms of ESSA represent urgently needed freedom to build on research-backed, practice-proven strategies to do better by our educators, and consequently, by our kids. Please explore our new report for ideas about how to take advantage of this newfound freedom to innovate.