Unbundling: A New Way to Approach Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Supplies

“Our public policies fundamentally disrespect them (teachers) and the work they do. No enterprise, public or private, can thrive over time without paying close attention to how it recruits, trains, and retains its very best people.”

– Jason Kamras, 55th National Teacher of the Year, and Andrew Rotherham, education analyst and co-founder of Bellwether Education, in Education Week


“‘Teachers are the ones that are in the muck with students the most. They know the most about what’s happening and what should be happening in their classrooms,’ said Mandy Flora, a fellow at Teaching Lab, a nonprofit that supports teacher-led PD. But when it comes to school- and district-level decision-making, including around PD, teachers ‘often have the least amount of power in making decisions,’ she said.”

– as reported by Sarah Schwartz in Education Week


“What many people don’t realize, however, is that teachers’ classrooms don’t come fully stocked and ready for students. Though the US government gives a $250 tax credit to teachers for any school supplies they buy, some end up surpassing this amount.”

 – as reported by Melanie Weir in Business Insider


Teaching is a profession. Teachers are professionals. These statements are not controversial except in one arena—in the deplorable human resource management that is sadly the norm in America’s public education system.

Two aspect of these poor HR practices are: (a) how they administer professional development (PD) to teachers, and (b) how teachers must use significant sums of their own money to purchase supplies for their classrooms.

Both of these issues can be remedied with one initiative: provide teachers with Professional Teacher Accounts (PTAs) that (a) give them the opportunity and responsibility for securing the PD that allows them to best serve their students and (b) no longer require them to spend out-of-pocket to supply their classrooms. By giving teachers autonomy over purchases of PD and classroom supplies, public school districts would unbundle these endeavors from the myriad decisions that district and school administrators must make each day.

Unbundling Professional Development by Treating Teachers Like Professionals

Based on a large survey of public school teachers, leaders and professional development staff, the New Teacher Project (TNTP) estimated that teachers spend about 19 days per year in professional development activities. The total cost of this PD (including the cost of teachers’ time) is estimated to be about $18,000 per teacher per year.

In addition, researchers and experts have written numerous reports that conclude:

1. Teachers are often not happy with the extensive amounts of PD they receive

2. Often PD is not effective at improving instruction and student outcomes

3. Great PD should look like [fill in the blank]

4. We need more money and more of teachers’ time devoted to this great kind of PD.

Maybe the problem is not that 19 days is not enough or that we need to spend even more money on PD.  Perhaps the problem is—who decides? Who decides which professional development each teacher receives? Typically, PD is decided by leaders at the district and school level, and teachers have limited or even no choice as to which PD they must endure.

Teachers should ask themselves: Is having my bosses choose my PD for me each year treating me like a professional?

Districts often have a menu of workshops on PD days that allow teachers to choose from among a handful of sessions, or even a single workshop that all teachers in a given grade or subject must attend.  Large districts often pay expensive motivational speakers to inspire teachers at the start of the year.  Teachers sometimes have to sit through seminars on things they already know how to do, workshops they have attended several times before, or over strategies that are not used in their subject area.  District and school leaders are extremely busy, and perhaps they do not have the bandwidth to choose the best professional development for all their teachers.

Instead of letting district leaders or state mandates dictate all PD, Michael Horn and Mike Goldstein proposed taking existing PD funds and placing them into individual accounts for each teacher. Teachers would then be empowered to spend these funds on the PD opportunities they believe they need and that would be most beneficial to their students. District and school leaders and professional teacher unions and associations could suggest workshops and other PD opportunities, organize PD events with various PD vendors, etc.—but teachers would make decisions on how their PD funds are spent.

Those accounts for each teacher could be called Professional Teacher Accounts (PTAs). Using data from Georgia, it appears that PTAs could comfortably be funded at $750 per teacher per year in that state.

(Georgia school districts spent over $137 million on PD and had about 140,000 certified personnel in 2018, for an average expenditure of close to $1,000 per person. PTAs of $750 per teacher (and all other certified personnel) would allow Georgia districts to retain some funds for other PD efforts of their choosing. Since TNTPs total PD cost estimate ($18,000) includes the compensation costs of the teachers themselves, all of those dollars cannot be included in PTAs. Finally, 25-year old research notes that districts and states are not transparent with respect to outlays on PD, and that some studies estimated PD expenditures to be significantly higher than $1,000 per teacher—even 30 to 40 years ago. Perhaps step 1 is for state lawmakers have their audit, research, or budget staff figure out how much is really spent on PD.)

Almost all public school teachers are rated effective, and would thus receive PTAs where they have the opportunity to choose the PD they deem best. Teachers who are rated ineffective would lose control over their PTAs, and principals would then be able to arrange for PD to improve those teachers’ effectiveness. Thus, teachers would have an incentive to spend these dollars wisely.

America’s public school system spends a lot of money and more than 9 percent of teachers’ valuable work time on professional development activities. Teachers believe and researchers find that these PD activities are often ineffective and sometimes demoralizing.

We can do better.

To discover if teachers can do better than district and school leaders, Michael B. Horn and Mike Goldstein smartly propose that states conduct a randomized controlled trial, where teachers in some districts receive autonomy over their PD, while other districts continue with the current top-down model. And, if teachers use PD funds well, they suggest allowing teachers to have the authority to make spending decisions over other more things if they’d like, such as “curriculum, books, field trips, classroom materials (from rugs to school supplies), and education technology.”

PTAs would be a move away from the ubiquitous and ineffective top-down PD regime to a practice that empowers teachers to seek out the professional development they believe would benefit their students the most. Thus, these accounts provide the best hope of ensuring that PD funds are actually leading to improvements in teaching that would in turn benefit students.

Unbundling Classroom Supplies by Showing Teachers Some Respect

Another reality in public schools is teachers spend almost $500 per year out of pocket on classroom supplies, on average. This lack of respect for teachers is another deplorable HR practice in America’s public education system. It got so bad that the U.S. Congress felt the need to pass a tax credit for teachers’ purchases of classroom supplies, up to $250.

But, this too is an indignity, as it further complicates the federal income tax code for teachers, as teachers must keep records and receipts of these purchases for tax purposes, and $250 is only about half the average of these out-of-pocket expenses. They were thrown a bone, and it’s not OK.

Along with the PD funds in Professional Teacher Accounts solution discussed earlier, public school districts should seed these PTAs with an additional $500 per teacher so they may also buy classroom supplies.

To give teachers even more autonomy, they should be allowed to use all funds in their PTAs at their discretion—as long as they are spent on either classroom supplies or PD. Thus, teachers would not have to spend the full $500 on classroom supplies or the full $750 (from the Georgia example above) on PD.  If they felt they needed more PD, they could spend more on PD. If they felt their students would be best served by more classroom supplies, they could spend more on classroom supplies. Teachers should be allowed to pool or share PTA dollars with other teachers, too.

Under a program of PTAs, individual teachers are the ones who decide how much to spend and what specifically is purchased under both endeavors. As long as individual teachers remained in good performance standing and expenditures were on approved items and services, they would have complete autonomy over purchases using their PTAs.

In addition to autonomy and respect, these features would give teachers an incentive to be cost conscious when securing PD (perhaps using low-cost digital content when appropriate) and when purchasing supplies.

For Classroom Supplies, Many Districts and Even One State Have Already Moved in this Direction

A company called ClassWallet manages teacher spending for classroom supplies in 3,200 schools across 20 states—and this company recently was awarded a contract to provide teacher supply accounts for all teachers in the state of Utah. In a letter from the Utah Board of Education, the Board estimates that partnering with ClassWallet would save 22,660 hours of processing time, or about $748,000.

How does it work? Districts fund ClassWallet accounts with federal, state and local funds dedicated for classroom supplies. When individual teachers make purchases, ClassWallet keeps track of all the expenditures, digitizes the receipts and automates the reconciliation. The result is a cashless, paperless and automated process that allows educators to meet classroom needs nimbly and efficiently and for administrators to maintain the controls they require.

Thus, many public schools are already using individualized accounts for teachers’ purchases of classroom supplies. It would be straightforward to include PD funds in these accounts as well. ClassWallet will soon offer a similar service for school district maintenance crews for their day-to-day purchases. Surely, school districts could use this type of service for other types of expenditures, too.

Let’s Recap

Combining funds for professional development (PD) and classroom supplies into one account—Professional Teacher Accounts (PTAs)—would offer the following benefits to America’s public school students and teachers:

• PTAs would treat teachers as professionals by allowing them to choose their own PD—PD they believe would enable them to be the best teachers they can be.

• Teachers would be treated with respect and not forced to purchase classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

• Treating teachers as professionals and with respect may help improve recruitment and retention in the profession.

• Students will benefit as their teachers are happier and obtain the PD that best meets their needs.

• Teachers would have an incentive to be cost conscious given their autonomy over these funds and given their ability to conserve on PD expenditures to devote more resources to classroom supplies, and vice-versa. So, these dollars will likely be spent more efficiently relative to the current top-down system.

Funding for professional development in PTAs would come from existing funds already earmarked for PD.  But, funding for classroom supplies would be a new cost to public school districts, as they currently require teachers to use their own money to a large degree for these purchases.

For the upcoming academic year, America’s public school system will likely spend about three-quarters of a trillion dollars (yes, trillion with a “t”). If they claim they cannot find the money to pay for classroom supplies, perhaps they should look to their decades-long excessive hiring practices and reallocate some funds to teachers’ purchases of classroom supplies.

Finally, giving teachers autonomy over personal accounts that allows them to purchase the PD and classroom supplies they believe are best for their students would bring at least two deplorable public school HR practices out of the Stone Age and treats teachers as the professionals that they are.


Read more from The Unbundling Series:

Five Services Public Education Should Do Differently

How K–12 Education Could Do Transportation Differently

Three Ways Public Schools Can Rethink Food Services

Rethinking How We Deliver Remedial Services to Students Who Need Them

Three Policies That Would Improve Schools’ Core Education Services