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American public education has done a poor job of taking care of its most important resource—its people. Despite an increasing demand on public schools to educate all students and changes in the labor market that mean schools must compete more vigorously for good teachers, public school systems continue to approach the teacher workforce as they did a generation ago. Teachers enjoy little opportunity for professional growth or advancement without leaving the classroom, creating a disincentive for those who want to take on additional skills and responsibilities. And there is little sensitivity to teacher talent or effectiveness: From recruitment and training to compensation, low-performers and high-fliers are treated much the same, and poor and minority students are less likely to get the most effective teachers. While American society and what's expected of public schools has changed a great deal, our approaches to human capital in education have not.
The federal government's role in promoting quality teachers and principals has not kept pace with change either. It once supported leading-edge efforts, such as the initiative to train math and science teachers at the height of the Cold War when the nation needed scientists and engineers, but systemic support for that training was weak. Over time, the federal government has increased its monetary investment but has been less effective at changing educational practice or supporting innovative reforms.
Today, largely through Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal government spends approximately $3 billion directly on efforts to promote teacher and principal quality. Yet, tangible results from these efforts are scant, and there is little evidence that these funds are driving the sort of changes needed to help schools recruit, train, place, induct, and compensate quality teachers or changes that are aligned with broader human capital reform efforts in education.
For instance, although it is perhaps the most high-impact human capital reform today, the nonprofit Teach for America, which has placed almost 20,000 teachers in high-poverty schools across the country, receives almost all of its federal funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a source that is outside Title II and outside the Department of Education. Likewise, the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, an initiative to help states and communities design performance-based teacher pay schemes, is perhaps the federal human capital reform with the most potential to bring about substantial structural change in the field. Yet, it is funded at less than $100 million and has been attacked, and cut, during the annual federal appropriations process by opponents of incorporating student performance into teacher pay. Despite increasing state and local interest in differentiating teacher pay and innovating with ways to reward exceptional teachers and give them opportunities for leadership that do not mean leaving the classroom altogether, this small investment is the federal government’s primary foray into this area of reform.
Now, Congress and the Obama administration have a chance to reshape federal policy to better support emerging education human capital reform efforts. All of the ESEA (called the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, in its current version enacted in 2002) is overdue to be reauthorized, and it will be a primary item on the next administration's education agenda. The reauthorization gives policymakers an opportunity to overhaul Title II and use federal dollars as much more effective levers of reform than they are today.
Currently, the federal Title II program sends dollars to states and school districts mostly for "lower-leverage" activities like professional development and class-size reduction, which although sometimes meritorious will not bring about larger scale change in states or local school districts and truly change outcomes for students. As policymakers consider changes to the ESEA, they must take steps to turn the federal role in human capital into a "higher-leverage" undertaking—meaning a role that is focused on changing existing practices where they are not aligned with broader school reform goals, building new institutions, and catalyzing more substantial change for students. A higher-leverage federal role would shift the federal government’s role from enabler of existing activities largely irrespective of quality to a driver of reform through strategic investments in new initiatives, institutions, and policy schemes to recruit, train, support, and evaluate and compensate teachers.
This report was made possible by grants from Carnegie Corporation of
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