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Training, employment, and education

Teacher quality: proliferation of programs complicates federal efforts to invest dollars effectively

Why Area Is Important

In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent over $4 billion specifically to improve the quality of our nation's 3 million teachers through numerous programs across the government. Teacher quality can be enhanced through a variety of activities, including training, recruitment, and curriculum and assessment tools. In turn, these activities can influence student learning and ultimately improve the global competitiveness of the American workforce in a knowledge-based economy. Prior GAO reports have noted that sustained coordination among key federal education programs could enhance state efforts to improve teacher quality.

What GAO Found

Federal efforts to improve teacher quality have led to the creation and expansion of a variety of programs across the federal government; however, there is no governmentwide strategy to minimize fragmentation, overlap, or duplication among these many programs. Specifically, GAO identified 82 distinct programs designed to help improve teacher quality, either as a primary purpose or as an allowable activity, administered across 10 federal agencies. Many of these programs share similar goals. For example, 9 of the 82 programs support improving the quality of teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM subjects) and these programs alone are administered across the Departments of Education, Defense, and Energy; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and the National Science Foundation. Further, in fiscal year 2010, the majority (53) of the programs GAO identified supporting teacher quality improvements received $50 million or less in funding and many have their own separate administrative processes.

The proliferation of programs has resulted in fragmentation that can frustrate agency efforts to administer programs in a comprehensive manner, limit the ability to determine which programs are most cost-effective, and ultimately increases program costs. For example in the Department of Education (Education), eight different offices administer over 60 of the federal programs supporting teacher quality improvements, primarily in the form of competitive grants. Education officials believe that federal programs have failed to make significant progress in helping states close achievement gaps between schools serving students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, because, in part, federal programs that focus on teaching and learning of specific subjects are too fragmented to help state and district officials strengthen instruction and increase student achievement in a comprehensive manner. While Education officials noted, and GAO concurs, that a mixture of programs can target services to underserved populations and yield strategic innovations, the current programs are not structured in a way that enables educators and policymakers to identify the most effective practices to replicate. According to Education officials, it is typically not cost-effective to allocate the funds necessary to conduct rigorous evaluations of small programs; therefore, small programs are unlikely to be evaluated. Finally, it is more costly to administer many separately authorized federal programs because each program has its own policies, applications, award competitions, reporting requirements, and, in some cases, federal evaluations.

While all of the 82 federal programs GAO identified support teacher quality improvement efforts, several overlap in that they share more than one key program characteristic. For example, teacher quality programs may overlap if they share similar objectives, serve similar target groups, or fund similar activities. GAO previously reported that 23 of the programs administered by Education in fiscal year 2009 had improving teacher quality as a specific focus, which suggested that there may be overlap among these and other programs that have teacher quality improvements as an allowable activity. When looking across a broader set of criteria, GAO found that 14 of the programs administered by Education overlapped with another program with regard to allowable activities as well as shared objectives and target groups (see table). For example, the Transition to Teaching program and Teacher Quality Partnership Grant program can both be used to fund similar teacher preparation activities through institutions of higher education for the purpose of helping individuals from non-teaching fields become qualified to teach.

Areas of Overlap among Selected Programs Administered by Education That Support Teacher Quality Improvement

Areas of Overlap among Selected Programs Administered by Education That Support Teacher Quality Improvement

Note: The 14 programs shown in the table are a subset of over 60 Education programs supporting teacher quality improvement either specifically or as an allowable activity. Specifically, although Title I, Part A, School Improvement Grants, and Even Start allow program funds to be used for teacher quality activities, this is not their primary focus. The 14 programs presented above overlapped with at least 1 other program across objective, target group, and activity.

aEducation has proposed consolidating this program under a broader program in its proposal for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

bThis is not an exhaustive list of activities allowed under these programs, but rather the activities GAO determined were most relevant for the purposes of this analysis.


Although there is overlap among these programs, several factors make it difficult to determine whether there is unnecessary duplication. First, when similar teacher quality activities are funded through different programs and delivered by different entities, some overlap can occur unintentionally, but is not necessarily wasteful. For example, a local school district could use funds from the Foreign Language Assistance program to pay for professional development for a teacher who will be implementing a new foreign language course, and this teacher could also attend a summer seminar on best practices for teaching the foreign language at a Language Resource Center. Second, by design, individual teachers may benefit from federally funded training or financial support at different points in their careers. Specifically, the teacher from this example could also receive teacher certification through a program funded by the Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow program. Further, both broad and narrowly targeted programs exist simultaneously, meaning that the same teacher who receives professional development funded from any one or more of the above three programs might also receive professional development that is funded through Title I, Part A. The actual content of these professional development activities may differ though, since the primary goal of each program is different. In this example, it would be difficult to know whether the absence of any one of these programs would make a difference in terms of the teacher's ability to teach the new language effectively.

In past work, GAO and Education's Inspector General have concluded that improved planning and coordination could help Education better leverage expertise and limited resources, and to anticipate and develop options for addressing potential problems among the multitude of programs it administers. Generally, GAO has reported that uncoordinated program efforts can waste scarce funds, confuse and frustrate program customers, and limit the overall effectiveness of the federal effort. However, given the large number of teacher quality programs and the extent of overlap, it is unlikely that improved coordination alone can fully mitigate the effects of the fragmented and overlapping federal effort.


Actions Needed

In 2009, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Education work with other agencies as appropriate to develop a coordinated approach for routinely and systematically sharing information that can assist federal programs, states, and local providers in achieving efficient service delivery. Coordination is essential to ensure that programs do not work at cross-purposes, do not repeat mistakes, and do not engage in wasteful duplication of services. Education has established working groups to help develop more effective collaboration across Education offices, and has reached out to other agencies to develop a framework for sharing information on some teacher quality activities, but it has noted that coordination efforts do not always prove useful and cannot fully eliminate barriers to program alignment, such as programs with differing definitions for similar populations of grantees, which create an impediment to coordination.

Congress could help eliminate some of these barriers through legislation, particularly through the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and other key education bills. Specifically, to minimize any wasteful fragmentation and overlap among teacher quality programs, Congress may choose either to eliminate programs that are too small to evaluate cost-effectively or combine programs serving similar target groups into a larger program. Education has already proposed combining 38 programs into 11 programs in its reauthorization proposal, which could allow the agency to dedicate a higher portion of its administrative resources to monitoring programs for results and providing technical assistance. Congress might also include legislative provisions to help Education reduce fragmentation, such as by giving broader discretion to the agency to move resources away from certain programs. Congress could provide Education guidelines for selecting these programs. For example, Congress could allow Education discretion to consolidate programs with administrative costs exceeding a certain threshold or failing to meet performance goals, into larger or more successful programs. Finally, to the extent that overlapping programs continue to be authorized, they could be better aligned with each other in a way that allows for comparison and evaluation to ensure they are complementary rather than duplicative.

Framework for Analysis

The information contained in this analysis is based in part on issued GAO products listed under the "Related GAO Products" tab. Additionally, it is based on recent GAO analysis of overlap among teacher quality programs among a broad range of 82 federal programs that support teacher quality efforts directly as a primary purpose, or as an allowable activity. GAO reviewed programs that it had previously identified as teacher quality programs and refined the initial list of programs based on a keyword search of the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) for programs that included "teacher quality," "teacher training," or "professional development" in their descriptions. GAO then reviewed agency Web sites, budget documents, and other information to verify that these programs support teacher quality improvements directly or allowed funds to be used to support teacher quality improvements. Education verified that the 63 programs that they administer and that GAO identified as supporting teacher quality improvement did so either directly or as an allowable activity; GAO did not ask other agencies to verify other programs on the list.

To specifically identify potential fragmentation and overlap among these programs, GAO reviewed the CFDA descriptions and other documentation to determine if programs had similar objectives, served similar target groups, and provided similar types of assistance. For purposes of this report, GAO focused on Education programs, which further narrowed the list of potentially overlapping programs to 14. GAO then interviewed responsible program officials to obtain more detailed information about each of these programs. GAO also interviewed Education officials to determine if progress had been made in addressing previous recommendations aimed at improving coordination among agencies administering teacher quality programs, and to obtain information about the potential impact of consolidating or eliminating programs that GAO identified as being potentially duplicative.

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