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Professional development vouchers are not what educators need

Learning Forward has long worked to ensure that all educators, particularly those serving students with the highest needs, have access to high-quality professional learning that aligns to the Learning Forward Standards for Professional Learning. Because of our efforts to educate the field about what works, professional learning is shifting away from workshops and one-off sessions that earned professional development its bad reputation and is moving toward collaborative, ongoing, job-embedded professional learning such as coaching, mentoring, and professional learning communities. The Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) more rigorous definition of professional development embodies this important transition. On the ground, our members have led the charge for this shift and they see its results daily.

Teachers should absolutely have a say in what and how they learn. And that professional agency for educators is best created when districts establish learning systems that prioritize educator needs, student needs, and what we know about high-quality professional learning.

''Professional agency for educators is best created when districts establish learning systems that prioritize educator needs, student needs, and what we know about high-quality professional learning.'' Click To Tweet

Now is no time to go backwards. The lessons learned through COVID-19 tell us not only that we can make ongoing, collaborative, and job-embedded professional learning widely accessible through virtual options, but also that continuous learning is more important than ever as educators face new challenges daily. As we stated in our blog last week, unprecedented times call for stop-gap measures. We know and support the necessity of serving teachers’ immediate needs when circumstances like this pandemic arise, but when looking at long-term professional learning we must not abandon the principles we know enable improved outcomes for students.

We know that educators across the globe embrace this view, but sometimes policymakers, at least in the U.S., aren’t keeping up. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education published a Notice of Proposed Priority in the Federal Register pertaining to the EIR competitive grant program. The EIR program, established in ESSA, provides funding through competitive grants to develop and scale field-initiated innovations that improve student outcomes and to rigorously evaluate these innovations. This year, the Department is seeking to change the priorities for the early-phase competitive grants to create a Professional Development Voucher program that would provide teachers with professional learning stipends to allow them to select professional learning options for themselves. The PD Voucher program rules also indicate that school districts must allow any selected professional learning option to fully count toward mandatory teacher professional development goals.

The lessons learned through #COVID19 tell us not only that we can make collaborative and job-embedded professional learning widely accessible through virtual options, but also that continuous learning is more important than ever. Click To Tweet

Learning Forward is deeply concerned that the PD Voucher program would undermine the high-quality professional learning that ESSA has codified and toward which Learning Forward believes that America’s systems must move. Specifically, we are concerned that the PD Voucher program:

  • Does not align to the definition of professional learning in ESSA and would not support professional learning that is sustained, collaborative, school-based, and job-embedded.
  • Would contribute to scattershot, “sit and get” professional learning that is not aligned to school or district priorities. Professional learning needs to be supported by teams and systems that ensure what is gained through professional learning is implemented in classrooms and schools.
  • Would not afford equitable access to professional learning. Widespread access to effective professional learning is a critical equity lever in schools – only when ALL educators have access to sustained, relevant professional learning do all students have access to the best teaching and learning possible. Since only those educators most “in the know” will participate in the PD Voucher program, the opportunity will likely be skewed to those educators who already have an awareness of what they need as professionals and/or have knowledgeable and supportive leadership – therefore not likely those in the highest needs schools.
  • Could undermine Title II-A professional learning funding which supports high-quality programs, including coaching, mentoring, and professional learning communities.

Through the Federal Register, the U.S. Department of Education is inviting the public to submit comments regarding the PD Voucher program by May 13, 2020. Rest assured, Learning Forward will be submitting our comments about the inadvisability of establishing this program. We also encourage those of you who share our commitment to high-quality professional learning and our concerns about this program to consider submitting comments.

Our current crisis has shown us with stark clarity what we owe our educators, and it isn’t second-rate support. Thank you for being part of the movement to ensure that professional learning continues its shift to greater effectiveness for all educators.

Melinda George is Learning Forward’s chief policy officer.

See Learning Forward’s growing collection of resources, webinars, and the online community created to support educators at this time.

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