Wednesday, February 28, 2018
The past decade and a half has shown there is no limit to the number of education reforms that states and the federal government can churn out. I won't try to list them all. I will just note two of the most vicious: those aimed at public school funding and those aimed at teachers. States moved large sums of money out of the public school budget and into voucher and charter programs. On top of that, they just took a hatchet to bottom line for school funding. At the same time, they attacked teacher tenure, froze salaries, instituted high stakes evaluation systems, and sought to reduce the influence of teacher unions. The net result was to scare so many current and prospective teachers away that a nationwide teacher shortage developed in 2015.
In Averting Educational Crisis: Funding Cuts, Teacher Shortages, and the Dwindling Commitment to Public Education, I outlined the short and long-term threats of these trends. But because I was basically tracking the problem in real-time, I indicated things might get worse before they got better. On the other hand, maybe I was being alarmist. It will take after-the-fact analysis by statisticians to reach any systemic conclusions. A new story out of Detroit reveals, however, that many students and teachers can feel exactly what is happening while the education reform world experiments and then looks backwards.
The Detroit Free Press offers this account:
The kindergartners at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy were shouting out words written neatly on small cards — correctly recognizing words such as "after," "red" and "look" — when their teacher Vanessa Parnell noticed a telltale sign that it was time for a classroom potty break.
"I see some of you wiggling," said Parnell, whose University District neighborhood school is struggling with large class sizes because of teacher vacancies in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
And when you have 38 wigglers, taking a bathroom break isn't simple. Parnell must first spend time getting her class into two lines, then the students must traipse down a long hall, up a few stairs and down another long hallway to reach the middle school bathrooms. They take this long trek because the middle school bathrooms have more stalls than the elementary bathrooms — and saving time is important when you have nearly 40 students to get through.
It's just one of the frustrations Parnell faces every day managing a crowded class at this crowded school. Here, enrollment is up more than 100 students from last year — good news after years of declines. But a combination of teacher vacancies and building problems — illustrated by the four large buckets that were collecting leaking water in the kindergarten classroom on a recent day — have made classes swell.
Parnell said she and other teachers work hard to help students thrive despite "the hurdles and outside things that impede learning," and she worries that dealing with large classes impacts that work.
"It's extremely stressful, because I don't get to spend the one-on-one time that's needed with young children," said Parnell, who doesn't have a paraprofessional to assist her.
Palmer Park isn't the only school with large classes. The teacher contract establishes class size limits. In grades K-3, the class size is supposed to range from 17-25 students. In grades 4-5, the maximum is 30. And in grades 6-12, the max is 35 students.
Across the district, 14 out of the district's 115 schools have oversize classes — many of them with multiple classes that are too large. According to fall class data provided by the district:
-Nearly every K-8 class at Palmer Park is teeming with students. A third-grade class has 40 students, a sixth-grade class has 44 and a second-grade class has 39. The school's overall numbers have increased even more since fall.
-An eighth-grade class at Noble Elementary-Middle School has 52 students.A third-grade class at Bow Elementary-Middle School has 48 students.
-An eighth-grade class has 47 students.
-A fourth-grade class at Dixon Elementary-Middle School has 49 students, while a fifth-grade class has 43 students.
-A fourth-grade class at Mason Elementary has 45 students.Meanwhile, a sweeping report on school funding in Michigan that was released last month suggested 20 as the optimal class size for children in grades K-3.
There are now 178 vacancies in the Detroit school district, down from 260 at this time last year. But it's still enough to cause problems.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said a large part of the problem is the district's difficulty attracting teachers, a problem exacerbated by the fact that experienced teachers often must take a pay cut in order to get hired by the district. That's because under the district's teachers' contract, teachers hired receive credit for only two years of teaching experience. That can mean a pay cut for many.
This is why I prefer equity and adequacy to experimentation.