The Public School Budget Crisis and the Dilemma of Professional Development

From the Tacoma News TribuneDuring the course of a school year, the cost to offer professional development adds up to a tidy sum, which is getting harder for school officials to ignore as they comb their budgets for savings.

Fork in the public school budget road. Given budget shortfalls in the tens of millions, the question for the Tacoma School District, and nearly every other one, is how to prioritize among competing trade-offs including: 1) continuing professional development including the mentoring of beginning teachers; 2) retaining more teachers and thereby maintaining smaller class sizes; 3) consolidating (meaning closing some) schools; or 4) reducing pay. Put differently, the District can’t afford to maintain the same professional development program for the same number of teachers in the same number of schools at the same level of pay.

I’m here to help.

Dear Superintendent Jarvis,

While it’s not obvious, as the coordinator of my university’s Masters Teaching Certification program, I’m on the front lines of this dilemma. Currently I’m reading applications, interviewing prospective candidates, and deciding (with the help of some colleagues) who gets the chance to earn a teaching license and who doesn’t. Ours is an above average program, but we need more applicants with even stronger academic backgrounds to choose from. As you’re well aware, legions of fifty and sixty-something boomer teachers are nearing retirement.

In short order, the profession is going to need an infusion of smart, dedicated, caring teachers. The medium and long-term health of your schools depends upon my university attracting deeper and stronger pools of applicants.

While admittedly difficult, I implore you to take the medium to long view by continually asking what priorities are most likely to attract more highly capable college graduates into the profession. The “least worst” outcome is to reduce professional development and consolidate some schools. On average, K-12 teachers make 40% less than their college graduate peers.

I suspect that for every percentage of teachers’ pay you cut and for every student you add to their average classrooms, we lose strong prospective candidates to the business world and other graduate programs. Chip away at compensation and increase teachers’ work loads through larger classes and our pool of applicants will shrink and weaken. The future quality of teaching in your schools hinges on preserving pay and favorable work conditions.

Professional development excellence does not requiring flying in a math expert for two days for $5k. Doing so suggests there isn’t a single teacher within the district who has specialized math expertise that will benefit others. Paying a charismatic professional speaker for a few inspiring talks is easier than changing the work culture, but it creates cynicism because of the utter lack of follow through. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know the medium and long-term benefits of distant experts will always be negligible.

Instead, think bottom-up and assign more responsibility to your teacher-leaders for professional development. Ask them to survey their colleagues and then plan more meaningful discussion-rich sessions around the issues they’ve identified as most important.

If you carefully explain how consolidating schools is the “least worst” outcome most people will eventually come around. People are understandably upset that their property values have plummeted while their property taxes have stayed the same or increased. No one ever likes to see their neighborhood school close, but they’ll be more understanding if you help them connect the dots between school closings, greater economic efficiency, and more manageable property taxes down the road.

Yours Truly,