Only a "C" Grade for the Teacher Empowerment Act

Report Education

Only a "C" Grade for the Teacher Empowerment Act

July 19, 1999 19 min read

Authors: Jacqueline Curnutte and Nina Rees

The House of Representatives will soon consider the Teacher Empowerment Act (H.R. 1995), or TEA. Introduced by Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA), TEA would consolidate three current federal programs and create a new Title II under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to upgrade the federal investment in teachers.

Of all the problems plaguing the nation's schools today, ill-prepared teachers arguably top the list. In 1996, Professor William Sanders of the University of Tennessee wrote that "the single most dominant factor affecting student academic gain is teacher effect."1 Sanders discovered that a student who received three consecutive years of poor teaching could lag by over 50 percentile points behind peers who had received good teaching during those same years. The issue catapulted to the forefront of the national education debate last year when 59 percent of newly hired teachers in Massachusetts failed a fairly basic state literacy exam. Politicians in Washington took note of the public's reaction.

A quick overview of the federal investment in the current ESEA Title II program--the leading federal initiative to boost teacher quality--offers little hope that Washington is the right place to find help to improve teacher quality. The current $350 million federal program offers little information on the correlation between activities it funds and student outcomes (see the Appendix).2

TEA's Purpose.
The Teacher Empowerment Act attempts to reform the federal investment in teacher quality by:

  • Consolidating certain federal teacher preparation programs (Title II, Goals 2000, and the class-size reduction program) and providing states and local schools additional flexibility in using the funds in exchange for increased accountability;

  • Encouraging innovation and experimentation with initiatives aimed at increasing teacher quality and offering teachers more choice in selecting high-quality professional development programs through Teacher Opportunity Payments (TOPs); and

  • Eliminating funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

TEA's Shortcomings.
Although TEA would be a step in the right direction, in its current form it risks failing to boost teacher quality effectively across America. For example, TEA:

  • Continues to take states down a paperwork trail that is cluttered with more federal mandates instead of demanding accountability in exchange for federal funds;

  • Falls short of empowering teachers to select their choice of professional development programs; and

  • Requires school districts to focus federal dollars on reducing class size unless they can prove the money can be used best elsewhere.

A better approach would take into consideration the recommendations offered in a recently released manifesto published by the Washington, D.C.-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and signed by 100 governors, state and local officials, education leaders, teachers, and parents. It finds that "school-level managers are in the best position to know who teaches well and who teaches badly. They have access to far more significant information than state licensing boards and government agencies."3 In fact, the report points out, "where personnel decisions have been deregulated, schools rush to hire well-educated persons whether or not they possess standard certification."4 The manifesto recommends that states use strong methods to measure their teachers' subject-matter competency and allow principals the freedom to hire whomever they wish to hire.

In the case of federal policy and funds, the best way to promote teacher quality is to give states the fiscal and legal autonomy to empower principals in exchange for proof of academic achievement, and to offer teachers the freedom to choose their professional development path.

States that boast high academic outcomes are states that invest in quality teachers. TEA's built-in flexibility and focus on student learning may encourage reform-minded states to do so. But a better "teacher quality" bill would guarantee that federal investment in teacher training boosts student learning by increasing the states' flexibility in exchange for agreed-upon results. Rather than merely being asked to demonstrate that a certain percentage of funding reaches each school district or program, states should be required to show how federal investments in their teachers enhanced student learning (which should be disaggregated by socioeconomic background).


  • In 1998, approximately 3.1 million elementary and secondary teachers were employed (up 17 percent from 1988).1

  • The number of public school teachers increased at approximately the same rate as the number of students over the past 10 years (in 1998, the student/teacher ratio was 17.2; in 1988, it was 17.3).2

  • In general, public school teachers have higher salaries than private school teachers do. In 1993-1994, the average base salary for public school was $34,153; in private school, it was only $21,968.3

  • Virtually all teachers have bachelor's degrees; 45 percent have a master's degree. More high school teachers have an undergraduate or graduate major in an academic field (66 percent) than do elementary school (22 percent) and middle school (44 percent) teachers.4

  • 12 percent of general elementary classroom teachers with 3 or fewer years of experience have emergency or temporary certification; but less than 1 percent of general elementary classroom teachers with 10 or more years of experience have temporary certification.5

1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1998, May 4, 1999.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers," statistical analysis report, January 1999, at

5. Ibid.


  1. TEA consolidates some federal teacher preparation programs.

TEA would combine the current funding in ESEA's Title II program with Goals 2000 and the President's class-size reduction program, creating a $2 billion fund5 for states to use to boost academic achievement through improved teacher quality. TEA would allocate $20 million of this funding to promote Teacher Excellence Academies (with a focus on alternative certification), Troops to Teachers, the National Writing Project, and the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse.

  1. TEA provides states and local schools with additional flexibility in using these funds in exchange for increased accountability.

States and school districts can invest in initiatives ranging from alternative certification to teacher testing so long as their investment is tied to state content and performance standards and to scientific research to show increased academic achievement. In cases where the funds are targeted for class-size reduction or professional development in math and science, the school district can apply for waivers. Despite a few input-driven mandates to drive dollars to the right program, TEA largely leaves decisionmaking to state and local officials. If school districts fail to raise teacher quality for two consecutive years, teachers will be given Teacher Opportunity Payments (TOPs) to participate in the professional development program of their choice.

  1. TEA eliminates funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) .

NBPTS has been given over $71 million in federal funds over the past decade without providing any evidence that its certification "standards" identify superior teachers based on objective evidence of student performance. The Board's standards represent a disturbing centralization of authority, moving away from parents and local school boards to "experts" at the Board and the Educational Testing Service (the group in charge of designing the SAT achievement tests). States may now choose to invest $2,000 per teacher in Board certificates if they find that it will boost academic achievement. So far, no such comprehensive study showing whether Board certified teachers are indeed superior exists.


  1. TEA continues taking states down a paperwork road cluttered with more mandates instead of demanding accountability.

Under TEA, a state must submit an application to the Secretary of Education describing, for instance, how it will ensure that its school districts comply with the requirements outlined in the law and how it will encourage innovative strategies. TEA also requires states to provide information to the public (through state report cards or another means) on the percentage of classes taught by out-of-field teachers and the average statewide class size. States may use federal funding to develop enhanced performance systems to measure the effectiveness of specific professional development programs and strategies, but they are in no way required to show results in exchange for federal funds.

A better approach would make states accountable for results and give them maximum fiscal and legal autonomy to invest in the teacher training programs they deem most suitable. Because poor students need quality teachers more than any other group of students, Congress should make serving needy students the first priority of its leading teacher training initiative and focus resources on achieving this goal. This can be accomplished by asking states to invest federal teacher-training dollars on initiatives they deem would help poor students the most, including allowing teachers to attend professional development programs of choice. In exchange, states simply would need to show data on student achievement (again, sorted by socioeconomic background) and on a particular teacher-quality enhancement program that resulted in higher student test scores. Such an approach is the only one that offers true accountability while empowering states.

  1. TEA should empower teachers--not local bureaucrats--to select the professional development program of their choice.

In their current form, Teacher Opportunity Payments (TOPs) kick in only if the state determines that the local education agency (LEA) is not using funds provided by TEA for content-, curriculum-, or scientific-based activities; if the LEA fails to meet its own objectives; or if the professional development activities are not of sufficient intensity or duration to have a lasting impact.

This approach does not empower teachers. It leaves LEAs in charge of deciding whether to spend the funds themselves on traditional, centrally planned programs and services or turn the money over to teachers to use as they see fit. LEAs likely will not cede dollars to teachers. To boost consumer choice, states ought to transfer all the funding for professional development to teachers to attend professional development programs with providers of their choice.

  1. TEA requires school districts to focus federal dollars on reducing class sizes even though the verdict on the benefits of this initiative on actual student achievement is still undecided .

For all the emphasis on relying on proven methods of teaching and training in the TEA legislation, it is disturbing that the bill holds school districts accountable for reducing class sizes unless they can prove the initiative would have an adverse effect. Although the language in this section is vague, it still cedes the issue concerning class sizes to those who believe that spending more and hiring more people will solve America's school problems.

As Eric Hanushek, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Rochester, observes, "broadly reducing class sizes is extraordinarily expensive and, based on years of research and experience, very ineffective."6 In fact, he concludes, "Extensive statistical investigation of the relationship between class size and student performance shows as many positive as negative estimates."7 Between 1950 and 1995, pupil-teacher ratios fell by 35 percent, yet student test scores remained stagnant.8 Precious federal dollars should not be wasted on initiatives with shoddy records of success.


  • Columbia University Teachers College, the top-ranked school of education in the country, accepts 61 percent of applicants; its highly ranked business school accepts 13 percent of applicants.1

  • Between 25 percent and 40 percent of education school graduates choose not to teach.2  

  • Over 63 percent of education professors admit that their programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenge of real-world teaching; 80 percent say their programs need to do a better job of weeding out unsuitable teachers; and 75 percent find their students have trouble writing essays free of grammar and spelling mistakes.3

1. Stephanie Soler, "Teacher Quality Is Job One," Progressive Policy Institute, January 1999, at .

2. Ibid.

3. Public Agenda Foundation, Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education, 1997.


Investing in education is perhaps the best investment a nation can make. And investing in teacher quality is perhaps the most important component. As Professor William Sanders of the University of Tennessee has shown, finding and keeping good teachers, especially in poor school districts, is critically important.

For this reason, the federal government should invite states to invest federal funds on any teacher-training program they deem best suited to boosting students' achievement, so long as the investment produces better academic outcomes. A state should have maximum leverage to spend the federal funding on programs that boost academic outcomes, and any dollars available for professional development should be offered to teachers directly to allow them to select a professional development program. But at the end of the day, the performance of students--especially those trapped in failing schools--must improve, and states will need to provide evidence of this improvement in academic gains disaggregated by socioeconomic background and teacher.


  • In Boston, students assigned to the most effective teachers for a year showed 18 times greater gains in reading and nearly 16 times greater gains in math than students assigned to the least effective teachers.1

  • Tennessee and Dallas students assigned three consecutive years to very effective teachers scored 50 percentile points better than students with three years of very ineffective teachers.2

  • In high-poverty schools, 39 percent of teachers spend a lot of time on reasoning skills; 55 percent of teachers do so in the more affluent schools.3

1. Education Watch 1998, Education Trust, 1998, Washington, D.C., pp. 14-15.

2. Ibid. and William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers, "Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement," Research Progress Report, University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center, Knoxville, Tennessee, November 1996.

3. Ibid., p. 18.

States that have implemented methods that boost teacher quality should be showcased and rewarded. Those that fail to boost teacher quality should come under strict sanctions. But no state should continue receiving federal funds, for instance, to enroll a few teachers in a training seminar that may or may not boost student achievement. That is the bottom line of any reform.


The TEA bill before Congress offers legislators, educators, and parents a good opportunity to begin debating one of today's most important issues: how to boost teacher quality. There are many good teachers in this country. Unfortunately, their successful approaches seem rarely replicated. Because so little is known about the best way to recruit and keep the best and the brightest teachers--especially in inner-city neighborhood schools--it is important that states be given maximum freedom with all federal teacher-quality funds to find the best solutions.

Any investment in professional development for teachers should give teachers the freedom to select the program that best suits their needs. In exchange, states should be required to show how the investment resulted in higher academic gains for students, especially poor students. If the federal government wants to be involved in boosting teacher quality, this approach is the only one that can accomplish this while respecting the balance of power between the federal government and the states, boosting consumer choice, and assuring better student outcomes.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former Senior Education Policy Analyst and Jacqueline Curnutte is a former Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.


Program Description:
Part A of ESEA Title II funds the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program's Federal Activities Program.9 Its two main projects are the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). The Eisenhower National Clearinghouse disseminates instructional materials for elementary and secondary schools and maintains curriculum databases. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a private organization that puts nominated teachers through a certification process.

State grants (Title II, Part B) constitute the majority of Title II funding. The grants are designed to support high-quality professional development for teachers. The first $250 million of each annual appropriation to a state must be used to improve instruction in math and science.10 The remainder may be used to improve teaching in any of the core academic subjects. These grants provide funds to state education agencies (SEAs), local education agencies (LEAs), state agencies for higher education (SAHEs), institutions of higher learning (IHEs), and qualified nonprofit organizations (NPOs).11 The state receives funds on the basis of U.S. Department of Education approval of either an individual state plan or a consolidated plan that includes the Eisenhower Program.

Activities at the local level may include, among other things, professional development in the effective use of technology as a classroom tool; the formation of professional development networks that allow educators to exchange information on advances in content and pedagogy; or peer training and mentoring programs for teachers and administrators.12 State-level activities may include providing support for reviewing licensure and certification requirements, and supporting professional development activities at the local level.13


  1. In Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers, researchers examined such questions as: Is the National Board able to identify superior teachers? Is National Board certification a cost-efficient way to identify superior teachers? Is National Board certification a good substitute for merit pay? Can the Board control cheating?14 They discovered no correlation between National Board certification and increased student achievement.

  2. A $750,000 two-year study conducted by SRI International and Policy Studies Associates in the late 1980s found that only about one-third of the nation's K-12 science and math teachers benefited each year from the program. During the 1988-1989 school year, program funds helped to pay for 600,000 different teacher experiences, ranging from brief in-service workshops to extensive graduate-level courses. However, these experiences lasted on average only six hours. At the school-district level, the funds amounted to an average of only $30 per teacher.15

  3. The first phase of an ongoing evaluation conducted by SRI International with Policy Studies Associates for the U.S. Department of Education is entitled Evaluation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Mathematics and Science State Curriculum Framework Projects (Part A): First Interim Report. The study found that the projects have made substantial progress developing curriculum frameworks; the frameworks did not provide a strong link to reform of state assessment programs; little progress was made in the development of guidelines for teacher education and certification, criteria for recertification, and model inservice professional development; and few linkages were found with the Eisenhower State Grant Program.16

  4. The first report from a three-year evaluation of Part B of the Eisenhower program (the state grants), entitled Evaluation of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program: State and Local Activities, was conducted by the American Institutes for Research.17 The study found, among other things, that:

  • In some of the six case sites studied, Eisenhower-funded activities were designed to provide more sustained, intensive professional development; to use teachers as leaders of professional development activities; and to promote alignment with high state or district standards.

  • The Eisenhower program focused largely on mathematics and science in the case-study sites reviewed--essentially to support the math and science components of existing reform or professional development approaches.

  • The reliability of Eisenhower funding, as well as the program's wide range of allowable activities, supported the districts' ability to engage in long-term planning and allowed districts to leverage other funds for professional development.

  • There was little direct connection between the Eisenhower program and Title I, Part A.

  • The case study districts had not established comprehensive, outcomes-based planning and evaluation processes grounded in performance indicators.


1. William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers, "Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement," Research Progress Report, University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center, Knoxville, Tennessee, November 1996, p. i.

2. See John R. Phillips and Marci Kanstoroom, "Title II: Does Professional Development Work?" in Marci Kanstoroom and Chester E. Finn, Jr., eds., New Directions: Federal Education Policy in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, March 1999). New Directions was published in cooperation with the Manhattan Institute.

4. Ibid.

5. Labor, Health, and Human Services appropriations allocated $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion for this legislation.

6. Eric Hanushek, "The Evidence on Class Size," Summary Testimony prepared for the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. Senate, February 24, 1998.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. U.S. Department of Education, "FY 2000 Budget Summary."

10. Ibid., Section A.

11. U.S. Department of Education, "Eisenhower Professional Development State Grants," ESEA Compliance Supplement.

12. U.S. Department of Education, at, CFDA #84.281.

13. Ibid.

14. Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky, "Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers," Education Leaders Council, April 1998.

15. Debra Viadero, "Third of Science, Math Teachers Each Year Found to Benefit from Small E.D. Program," Education Week, October 24, 1990.

16. U.S. Department of Education, "Evaluation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Mathematics and Science State Curriculum Frameworks Projects: First Interim Report," 1996.

17. Beatrice F. Birman, Alison L. Reeve, and Cheryl L. Sattler, "Evaluation of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program: State and Local Activities," American Institutes for Research, 1998.


Jacqueline Curnutte

Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The

Nina Rees

Senior Research Fellow