There's no question that we are never too old to learn. The need for professional development can help all of us become better at our jobs. Our investigation into Your Schools recently focused on the way some local school districts are spending tax money to help educate our educators. Some of the money is from local district tax funds and can be spent on virtually anything related to the operation of a district. Much of the money is from federal grants, which can be limited to specific types of training for educators, and is sometimes connected to a specific conference.
Our investigation looked at professional development records from two dozen districts, both big and small in Missouri and Illinois. In many cases we found districts like Collinsville, Edwardsville, and Fox and others that spend very little money traveling out of the metro area for professional development. We found others, including St. Louis City, Clayton, Ladue and Parkway that spend a lot more money traveling to conferences around the country.
I'm going to discuss the approach to professional development in as many districts as possible. I'll start with Clayton, which probably spends more on professional development per employee than any district in Missouri. I focused on the district's out of state trips. Six months ago, Clayton sent ten employees to San Diego for a cost of $12,603. Last March, seven employees went to a National Science Teachers conference at a cost of $9,385, two of the most expensive trips we found for any size district in the metro area even though it has fewer than 2,500 students.
Lee Ann Lyons, the Director of Professional Development and Literacy for the Clayton district, defended traveling long distances for training and education. "I think the problem with staying in a regional conference (St. Louis area) is we don't see the top experts in the field," she told me. "We don't network with a tremendous amount of high performing districts. We send a few people, bring that back and learn best practices from the best people in their field."
Like Clayton, the Ladue district is small, wealthy and has an excellent academic record. It also spends a great deal of money on out of state training and travel for professional development. Since June of last year, Ladue has sent employees to 23 states, including 18 people who went to the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Oregon, at a cost of nearly $25,000. Ladue Superintendent Dr. Marsha Chappelow stood by the decision to send so many teachers to Portland. "I think in the last three years our middle school has made tremendous strides in student achievement and I think a lot of it is due to the training they received at this assessment conference," she told me.
Thirteen months ago, Ladue spent $1,740 to help the Director of Parent Education attend a coaching conference in Adelaide, Australia, where she was one of two dozen presenters. Based on our review of records from more than twenty local districts, the Australia conference was the only trip to a foreign country paid for with local school district dollars. Dr. Chappelow admitted "that's not a normal trip...but the district didn't pay for the full trip. We paid for lodging to help the employee out."
In a rare move the Ladue district posted a detailed letter explaining how it cooperated with our investigation days before we aired our first story about professional development expenses. The letter, which was emailed to me last week, was unusual for many reasons, but it struck me as odd mostly because it contains references to comments that I made during what I would describe as casual conversation. Those conversations included discussions of our project and the likely course we were taking on some stories. I shared it as a courtesy with the understanding that the direction of those stories could change based on new information we discovered during our research, which is exactly what happened. Ladue had the right to publish that information, but it's the only district that did so, and I had similar conversations with officials in several dozen districts.
In an email sent Wednesday morning, Susan Dielmann, Ladue's Director of Communications, told me that she found it "very surprising" that we would put an Excel spreadsheet of school data on our website instead of a PDF file like the one some districts gave us. She argued we should have turned the Excel file into a PDF file "so that the information you worked so hard to gather could not be easily falsified by readers. Not the professional approach I would have expected." Obviously, I strongly disagree with her. I believe there's great value in allowing the users of our website to examine and organize this information because it makes it easier to understand. The Excel spreadsheets are easy to use and give more control to our viewers. Other districts provided Excel spreadsheets and they aren't complaining that we posted them. I trust the users of KMOV.com will use the information properly. I don't really understand what's unprofessional about that.
There's no question that Ladue and Clayton are among the most successful districts in Missouri. But Kirkwood and Parkway are also among the best districts in the state and they travel out of state for professional development much less than Clayton and Ladue.
Not surprisingly, our investigation found the St. Louis City school district spent by far the most money on professional development during the last fiscal year, about $3.2 million. According to the district, that includes $2.33 million in grants. In addition, the district spent a whopping $935,800 in local tax district money, which could be used on almost anything, including more teachers. The St. Louis district has 74 schools, the biggest enrollment and the most employees of any district in the metro area, and it's spending on professional development appears to be far more than any other district.
Our investigation focused on a spreadsheet provided by the district that shows repeated trips to New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Orlando. The easiest way to examine trips on an Excel spreadsheet like this one is to go to the top of your screen and click on the button called "data." After clicking on data then go to "sort," and click on that one. A box will appear giving you options on how to sort the information. Go to the second row and find the column marked "column." Click on downward arrow next to the words "sort by." This will allow you to sort by 11 different kinds of information, including the name of the employee, the destination and purpose of the travel. The records are not complete, but they give great insight into how the district spends money on professional development. You can sort data this way on any Excel spreadsheet.
If you spend much time on this spreadsheet you'll find dozens of employees traveling to Dallas and Chicago to receive training for AVID, which is designed to help instructors get certified to teach advance placement courses. According to the district, these trips, supported largely by grants, are directly responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of AP classes offered by the district and the number of students taking AP tests. In 2006-07 the district offered 2 AP course titles. Last year it offered 21. In 2006-07 the district had 198 students taking AP courses. Last year the district had 1,401 students taking AP courses.
Although we focused our story on those three districts. We also spent time on East St. Louis, the one district in the metro area that refused to give us any records relating to professional development. We didn't request records from every district, but every one we asked gave us the documents. We decided it wasn't fair to scrutinize the practices of those that cooperated with us and not investigate the one that didn't.
So, why didn't East St. Louis give us public records requested under the Freedom of Information Act? I believe it's because we conducted an in-depth investigation of the district that eventually included more than two dozen stories and a half hour program. During our previous investigation in 2006-07 we threatened a lawsuit to get copies of school board minutes. The district was shamed into providing services for special education students and made many personnel changes in response to our reporting. Here's a story published in TV Week magazine that provides more background on our investigation four years ago.
We began our investigation by asking for all training and travel records for professional development, but we quickly realized it was simply too much information. These districts provided information for both in-state and out of state professional development: Hazelwood, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant, University City. Eventually, we decided to request only out of state travel from most districts.
Rockwood, one of the largest and most successful districts in the state, sent us several attachments for their records, including a spreadsheet for nearly all out of state travel, trips related to fine arts and administrative travel for professional development.
In addition to those school districts we examined spending in others too, including out of state training and travel for Lindbergh, Fox, Parkway, Troy (Missouri), Kirkwood, Saint Charles, Wentzville, O'Fallon Township High School, Francis Howell and Ritenour.
We also examined additional records from Granite City, Edwardsville and several other districts, but the formats are difficult to read and I decided to not post them.
It's important to note that some of these out of state conferences can offer great learning opportunities for many educators, but you can become a great teacher without ever going to an out of state conference. In fact, two of the final eight candidates for Illinois Teacher of the Year are metro-east teachers who have never been to an out of state conference.