AFT teacher brings Title II debate down to earth

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AFT teacher Michelle Dickey was on Capitol Hill June 27 to help congressional staffers get a ground-level appreciation for the indispensable role that professional development plays and the priceless contribution it makes to positive student outcomes—forces that can only be sustained through a fully funded Title II program.

A teacher, professional development trainer and building steward for the Washington Teachers' Union, Dickey was a featured presenter at "How Investing in Teacher and Leader Professional Development Can Make a Difference." This presentation, organized by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) and hosted by the AFT, the Learning Policy Institute, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, provided an opportunity for Hill staffers to hear from frontline teachers and administrators about the value of strong, well-supported training in schools. The value of these supports has been called into question of late, most disturbingly in a Trump budget plan that wipes out funding for educator training under Title II.

Michelle Dickey

Dickey, a 17-year veteran of the District of Columbia’s public schools, was eager to rise to Title II's defense.

She explained how, as a rookie teacher, she drew from the strong mentoring she received and outstanding training she participated in—beacons on her road to career success. Far from ineffective "one-off" training efforts, these were rich and purposeful exchanges, she stressed; many times they fed a long-lasting dialogue between trainer and teacher, seeking to get the best out of both. This type of professional development needs to be the norm, Dickey said, because it pays handsome rewards for teachers striving to stay in their practice and for students, who benefit as well, regardless of educational setting.

"Professional development can bring the research to the real needs of the students," Dickey told the crowd. The teacher shared firsthand experience with practice-improving work—training "about brain trauma and how trauma impacts learning," for example—and ways that well-tailored PD can make a difference even in schools where students "may not have eaten over the weekend or are living in their cars."

"I want our students to dominate, and professional development will really help" in that mission, the Washington, D.C., teacher told congressional staffers. "To be the best, we have to constantly learn. To give students the best, we have to keep on top of the research."

The presentation was prompted in large part by the fiscal climate on Capitol Hill. Under the plan that President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos submitted to Congress, funding for Title II would be gutted, pulling the plug on the federal government's major program to help support professional development at the state and local levels for teachers, paraprofessionals and school administrators.

Those who think that Title II cuts can be covered by other parts of its parent law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, are fooling themselves, Dickey emphasized. Title I is the biggest outlay under ESSA, but there is "very little wiggle room" for how states and districts are allowed to use the bulk of Title I funds—Congress wants those federal dollars set aside to help local agencies in the education of children from low-income households.

Another myth used to justify Title II cuts is "seen one, seen 'em all" thinking: Critics are quick to cite any weak PD experience as evidence that all professional development isn't working. In truth, the quality of PD runs the spectrum, with many strong programs in the field. The Learning Policy Institute recently reviewed the evidence and uncovered seven widely shared features that characterize these stand-out opportunities for professional development. Instead of scorching the earth, the national imperative should be to foster and expand programs that share these qualities, several speakers said. That will only happen if Congress rejects a Trump-DeVos plan to pull the plug on this entire professional endeavor.

[Mike Rose]