Boston shifts training funds in wake of audit surprises

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In 1999, the Boston Public Schools conducted a pioneering analysis of its budget to pinpoint how and where it was spending money on teacher training. What it learned was that it wasn’t putting its money where its mouth was. Only a fourth of all professional development dollars were devoted to training that supported the backbone of the district’s reform effort—in-school coaching to improve instruction.

The audit found that the district was spending a total of $23.5 million, about 4 percent of its budget, on professional development, but that only about $5 million was integrated into its reform effort, called the Plan for Whole-School Improvement.

Tim Knowles, Boston’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, says the district expected to see instructional resources clustered around its literacy and school-change coaches. “What we found was we were attending to 27 different things,” he reports. “We were still pretty spread out.”

Since then, Boston has taken steps to realign its use of funds, hold schools accountable for their spending on professional development and retool the way it conducts professional development. Chicago has launched a similar analysis. (See story.)

“The way people spend their money is the best map of their priorities, regardless of what they have written down,” observes Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Management Strategies. Miles led the audit process in Boston and is now consulting with the Chicago audit team.

Conducted with the encouragement and help of Boston’s local education fund, the Boston Plan for Excellence, the Boston audit was the first of its kind nationally on multiple fronts:

It analyzed spending in great detail, looking at teacher training funds in all central departments, not just the ones traditionally viewed as conducting professional development.

It figured out the amount of time central office staff spent training teachers and then matched salary totals to that time.

It examined the quality of what was offered, not just the cost. For example, it determined whether activities were integrated into the district’s overall priorities and whether they met principles for effective professional development as defined by the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Education.

In the wake of the audit, central office eliminated a department and redirected more than $3 million to support math coaches in schools. Where money stayed put, departments were forced to refocus it on activities that supported the district’s reform effort.

Miles says that departments long left in isolation got a wake-up call. “Bilingual, Title I, the office of technology—all of these things that traditionally hadn’t felt accountable for having something that integrated with anything else …” were flushed out, she says. “That was the breakthrough.”

Knowles came on strong with department heads, saying: “I want X amount of dollars out of your department.” He didn’t always get what he wanted, but the demand forced departments to rethink their plans.

Even sensitive areas like special education and bilingual education felt the knife, but Knowles had to stop cutting when he hit a political nerve. “The bilingual department is more complex because they come with an external lobby,” he observes. “I went in aggressively—too aggressively, perhaps.” Initially, he sought to cut the department’s administrative budget by a whopping 70 percent, but he came away with only 10 to 15 percent. “We got nailed,” he concedes.

Ultimately, more than spending changed. The training itself changed, too. For example, the district’s professional development arm, the Center for Leadership Development, shifted its emphasis from voluntary coursework for teachers to help for principals in implementing reform.

The central administration also put pressure on schools to focus their “lead teachers” on reading and math.

In contract negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union, the district reconfigured three of the five professional development days when children stay home and teachers attend workshops.

The audit found that the district spent $8.2 million on those days, which Supt. Thomas W. Payzant says reaped no discernible results. “There was never any accountability and rarely any planning for those days,” adds Miles.

Now, each school schedules three days’ worth of professional development activity as it sees fit—for example, a school may hold a series of after-school workshops on reading instruction. In addition, the activities must support the school’s improvement plan.

Previously, school improvement plans were largely rubber-stamped and ignored, says Rachel Curtis, Boston’s director of school development. “We’ve pushed really hard to make them living documents,” she says.

As some observers see it, Boston has gone a long way toward solving the persistent time crunch that impedes teacher training. “There is time, and there is time well spent,” says Barbara Neufeld, an education consultant hired by the Boston Plan for Excellence to evaluate Boston’s reform effort. “Boston has gotten away from the no-kid-day workshops that are not explicitly tied to the goals of the schools.”

Boston on the move

Boston has proportionately more low scorers than the state as a whole on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), widely regarded as one of the most challenging state tests. However, in the last two years, Boston’s gains have equaled or exceeded statewide gains.