Category Archives: Philanthropy in the America

Teacher Professional Development and Philanthropic Investment

Despite millions of dollars in efforts to reform education, the results in most public schools, especially in poorer districts remains dismal. In my many conversations with teachers and school administrators, it is becoming painfully evident that what has been lacking for many years is quality and focused professional development. Business journals abound in articles providing tips on how to improve quality, customer satisfaction and ultimately earnings by making optimal use of professional development for employees. A growing field in “gamification” in business is one we are watching as it relates to the use of games to encourage motivation and output, based on a fundamental principle of play. Even with the new emphasis on teacher evaluation, the literature is relatively mute on what is being done on either the state or federal level to improve the quality of teacher professional development.

In my opinion,  too many philanthropic foundations engage in school reform focusing too much on trying to manipulate classroom outcomes without regard for teachers and the teaching profession.   We are quick to march in lock-step with the national testing frenzy perhaps because if feeds our own need for “outcome” measurements.   Too few are concerned with the professionals in front of the classroom and the support they need to improve themselves in their own profession.  The quality of professional development for teachers and where that best takes place is an issues  every foundation that supports education should take up.  A national discussion on the topic is long overdue.

My colleague Aaron Churchill at the Fordham Foundation wrote the following after we had a conversation on the topic last month:

“The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups: (1) Major Urban – the “Ohio Eight”; (2) Major Suburban – the state’s eight largest suburban districts by FY2012 enrollment; (3) Rural Farmland – Ridgemont Local (Hardin County) and its seven most similar districts.


The chart shows that from 1995 to 2012, the district average per-pupil PD expenditure has increased:

  • Statewide, from $50 to $278 (up 456 percent);
  • Urban, from $244 to $870 (up 257 percent);
  • Suburban, from $97 to $498 (up 413 percent);
  • Rural, from $36 to $178 (up 394 percent).

Thus, the average Ohio teacher, assuming a class of 20 students, receives somewhere around $5,000 a year for PD.


Chart: Average per-pupil PD expenditures, statewide and three district types, 1994-95 to 2011-12


SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education. NOTE: Expenditures adjusted for inflation by GDP deflator. Fiscal year 2012 data are preliminary.”

Aaron’s solution to the problem is to make better use of MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses such as Coursera. We will continue to watch that interesting development. In the meantime, we continue to believe that brining teachers together in environments where they can learn with and from each other is one of the most positive means of addressing this critical issue.


Many of the grants the foundation provides in education include focused professional development. We welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue as we seek to improve the impact of our grantmaking in this area.

[1] A note is in order here. PD expenditures, as defined here, are derived from the Ohio Department of Education’s Expenditure Flow Model, which reports “staff support” expenditures. A cross-check with the Uniform School Accounting System indicates that “staff support” are those “activities which are designed primarily for assisting instructional staff in planning, developing, and evaluating the process of providing challenging learning experiences for pupils. These activities include curriculum development, techniques of instruction, child development and understanding, staff training, and so forth.”

Teach for America: A Review of two programs in two States

In June 2011, the Nord Family Foundation approved  two large grants to support Teach for America in two geographic areas.  The first, in Northeast Ohio is $450,000 over three years and the other was $150,000 as a match to help launch TFA in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina – featured in a Nord Family Foundation supported video, “The Corridor of Shame.”  Their reports reflect the complexity of introducing innovative and effective solutions in two different political, cultural and economic contexts.


Teach for America in NE Ohio anticipated that 100 corps members would be teaching in the Cleveland and Lorain area in 2012-2013.  Many of the corps members were scheduled for placement within the Cleveland Municipal School Districts.   Conversations had already given indication that the Elyria Schools would also hire teachers. In the spring of 2012, due to a massive budget deficit, the CMSD laid off over 500 teachers. Elyria experienced similarly drastic budget cuts and laid-off teachers as well.  Lorain City Schools continued under administrative upheaval with an interim Superintendent, a massive budget deficit and construction of a new high school.    All of the districts mentioned continued to place in the Academic Emergency or Continuous Improvement status, lowest on the State Reports.  Under the 2013 revised report card, each of the districts would earn an F status.   Despite efforts on the part of the major foundations, none of the public districts could hire new teachers given the rules of collective bargaining.  As a result, TFA in NE Ohio reduced its projected numbers to 50, earning placements in some of the highest achieving, charter schools that serve impoverished communities yet continue to place in the range of “Academic Excellence” and/or “Effective” rankings due to excellence in teaching.  Each of the charter schools welcome TFA recruits with open arms and continue to be grateful for the talent and energy they bring to the schools.


Negotiations continue with the CMSD academic leaders as well as with union officials.  It looks at if the CMSD will agree to 15 TFA candidates for 2013-2014 school hear.  We hold out the same hope for Lorain County where Nord Family Foundation staff as well as Stocker Foundation staff continues to meet with the school Superintendents and curriculum directors at both Elyria and Lorain Schools.  In each case the leaders are willing to have the students, but the union leaders are likely to continue to protest those efforts.  In the meantime, corps members will be placed in charter schools. One area of hope is the Innovation Districtsin the CMSD.  These are districts that by law can elect to exempt themselves from many of the administrative restrictions including hiring.    These districts must be in academic emergency for three years or more to qualify.   These districts would be able to hire TFA recruits.  CMSD has schools within the district that meet these qualifications and Nord staff is currently in negotiations with the Superintendent of the Lorain Schools to have his school board consider such a designation.  TFA remains convinced that these innovation Districts will serve as the portal for more TFA staff to participate in the education leadership in the region.  Next year, TFA plans to have 65 new recruits in service.

A personal frustration is that some schools in the State of Ohio are not unlike the schools one could find in the Corridor of Shame in South Carolina.  Despite that reality, Ohio remains resistant to any significant changes to the way schools have always been, despite many incentives from both philanthropy and from the State.  We need to make more concerted efforts to work with School Boards who play a critical role in blocking or ushering innovation into schools.





[1] Innovation Districts were introduced in the 2011-2012 State budget in Ohio

Funding education programs that “teach” the Constitution

Over the past few years, the Nord Family Foundation has received requests to support programs that encourage better knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.  The Liberty Day project, prints pocket-sized copies of the Constitution which are distributed to schools across the country on “Liberty Day”  We provided support to the Bill of Rights Institute for several years but stopped after a sudden administrative house cleaning took place a little over a year ago. (For those in nonprofit work, a turnover of an executive as well as other key staff in a short period of time will flag concern for funders).   Finally, the trustees turned down a request from the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University to support a summer institute for teachers from various States to spend two weeks learning about the U.S. Constitution from a panel of scholars from selected universities across the country.  The blatant political bias left some uneasy providing support to that project.

I find it curious with the apparent proliferation of non-school based non-profits that have taken on the responsibility to provide teacher training on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of  Rights.  I would agree that a majority of teachers do not fully understand the Constitution. The bitter partisan political debates, the acrimony and personal attacks parallel the vituperation between religious sects and denominations. The middle east is a sad and tragic example and in the west, one only look at the bitterness in Northern Ireland between “Catholics” and “Protestants.”  Killing appears to be justified based on one’s interpretation of “truth.”

I struggled with requests to support Constitutional programs, finding hard to discern between what is history and what is political histrionics! Thanks to an article in the January 2011 New Yorker, by Harvard History Profession, Jill Lepore, called “The Commandments-The Constitution and its worshippers.” I think I have better insight.  After reading it, I would be interested to know the trustees thoughts on how we should address requests to “teach” the constitution in schools and among the citizenry.  Comments are welcome!