$Cha-ching: The SC votes on the FY18 budget

When people ask me what it’s like to be on the Cambridge School Committee, I reply, “The School Committee is a group of seven people trying to agree on how to spend 183 million dollars. It gets intense.”  The budget is the most important policy document of the year, and our biggest responsibility.

The fact that School Committee members don’t kill each other every budget season is a testament to the human capacity for restraint.  This year’s budget process, in fact, was pretty civil; we came to a unanimous YES vote. Last year, when Jeff Young was still superintendent, two of us voted PRESENT rather than YES, indicating our dissatisfaction with the budget that his administration produced.

Below is a version of the comments I made before this year’s vote, including my reasons for voting YES and the concerns I had.  A video of the discussion can be seen at Budget Discussion & Vote, 4/4/2017.  Superintendent Salim, Mayor Simmons, and all SC members made comments. My own comments run ~1:01-1:07 on the tape.

Below: Superintendent Kenny Salim, Mayor Denise Simmons, and School Committee members: Richard Harding, Kathleen Kelly, Emily Dexter, Patty Nolan, Manikka Bowman, Fred Fantini.

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My comments: First, I’d like to thank City Manager Louie DePasquale and former City Manager Rich Rossi.  In the 2000s, CPS was getting budget increases from the City of only 1, 2, or 3 percent. In 2015, however, the CPS increase was 4.6 percent, in 2016 it was 5.4 percent, and this year it’s 5.9 percent. That shows that the City administration and City Council understand the challenge of providing equitable learning opportunities in a city with one of the widest income gaps in the country. Cambridge’s GINI index of .54 ranks us as the 11th most unequal city in the U.S.  Our income gap is only slightly smaller than than the gap in Rio de Janeiro.

I’m voting YES on this budget for two reasons. One is that there are several things I like; the other, more important reason, is that this is Superintendent Salim’s first budget. The positives include funding for: 1) a long-awaited start of an elementary world language program, 2) additional paraprofessionals for our largest 1st grade classes, 3) a comprehensive review next year of our elementary programs, 4) full-time art teachers in schools that have had to share art teachers, and 5) an additional guidance counselor at CRLS. I’m particularly pleased about the addition of 1st grade paraprofessionals because it’s an acknowledgement that some of our early grade classrooms are too large.

What I don’t see in this budget, but hope to see next year, is a focused strategy for closing the income-related opportunity gaps that result in academic ability gaps.  On state standardized tests, we are still seeing 20, 30, even 40 percentage point proficiency and advanced learning gaps, which, across the country, are associated with income inequality.

Every year we increase what we spend on upper grade remediation–after school tutors, summer school, etc., but we don’t substantially increase resources in our early grade classrooms, where we have the most potential to influence children’s learning trajectories. Our class size “target” for 1st-2nd grade is 22 students, which most experts say is too large. Even with that target, one-fourth of all 1st graders this year–120 children–are in classes of 23-25 children with only one full-time teacher. You would never see that at Shady Hill!  In terms of support for struggling readers, some of our elementary schools are assigned only one reading specialist but have 70-80 students reading below grade level.  Former Cambridge Mayor and City Councilor Ken Reeves once suggested to me that we might need twelve reading specialists in every school. (See my blog post, Talking with Ken Reeves about Reading.) Trying that in two of our elementary schools, that would be a bold experiment!

Every year we try something new and inexpensive, hoping to get different results without spending more. We keep thinking that if we add something flashy—Chromebooks, a new science curriculum, a design lab, professional development from an expensive consultant, the Common Core standards–we’re going to close the income-based achievement gaps that are seen in every diverse district.  We love innovation in Cambridge, but we don’t focus enough on the basics—making sure all students get to school every day, keeping high school students off their cell phones during class, having enough trained adults in the classroom, having small enough class sizes for students to get the attention and close relationships with teachers they need to thrive in school, and conducting well-planned research and evaluation to ensure that our resources are distributed effectively and equitably across students.  It’s as if we have a house built on sand that is being eroded by the waves–more students, greater need, but instead of strengthening the foundation, we decorate the house.  We love our diversity, but we staff our schools as if they were suburban schools serving advantaged students whose parents all have advanced degrees and stable incomes.

What I sense in this budget is too little commitment to the central mission of our schools–classroom teaching and learning.  We say we’re going to try to provide more co-teaching in the upper schools, but we aren’t increasing the number of special educators. We say we’re going to try to have 9th grade English class sizes of 18 or fewer for the first year of the Leveling Up initiative, but are only hiring one additional English teacher, practically guaranteeing that many of those classes will have more than 18 students; i.e. will be larger than the maximum class size desired by the school’s principal!

We’re always trying to improve learning conditions for our students but at the lowest cost possible. That’s not a recipe for success. Increasing the instructional attention students receive by increasing the number of teachers and other educators in our schools would be expensive–we’d have to make substantial cuts somewhere or get more money from the City.  Professional development and Chromebooks, however, are relatively cheap.

I am, however, voting YES on this budget because I want to encourage our new superintendent, and because of the review processes in place.  I hope the elementary review will result in more elementary staff and more equitable staff assignments across schools.  I also hope the district planning process will result in a detailed preK-12th grade plan to close income-based opportunity gaps and to allow teachers to personalize instruction enough to meet the very diverse needs and academic abilities of all CPS students.

Comments welcome. Thanks for reading.  The final budget step is that it goes to the City Council for their approval.  That will take place on Tuesday, May 9th, 6:00 pm, at City Hall. It starts with a public hearing at which parents, students, and other members of the public can comment on the budget, followed by a presentation from Superintendent Salim, then councilors ask questions and make comments, and then they vote on whether to approve the budget or not. The advantage of parents and others speaking at the City Council CPS budget hearing (vs. the School Committee budget hearing) is that the Council members are closer to the purse strings: If CPS needs more resources ($$) to make substantial inroads in opportunity gaps and to educate all students well, it is the City administration and City Council that will make that happen, not the School Committee.

Next year’s “leveling up” at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School meets key criteria for public school initiatives

Four Kids walking into CRLS
Photo by CRLS parent Romana Vysatova

High quality public schools have an R&D mindset, carefully trying new things each year. Next fall, with the leadership of the new superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, Kenny Salim, and Damon Smith, principal of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, CRLS English teachers will try something new: “leveling up” the required 9th grade English classes. This means all 9th graders will be enrolled in the high challenge Honors English 9 class, with an extra “Honors Access” support class for students entering with below average reading and writing skills. In the following year, 9th grade history will also be leveled up. It’s an initiative that has been carefully planned, prepared for, and budgeted for.

At the start of this year’s budget process, Superintendent Salim articulated five guiding questions about new initiatives, including: What are the expected results and how will they be measured? As a School Committee member, I have a few additional questions: Has the initiative been tried in our schools in the same or similar format before we commit a large expenditure to fund the project? Will the teachers be prepared and experienced enough to do a good job in the launch year, without too much fumbling and learning on the fly? Will there be enough staff and institutional bandwidth to ensure that the first year won’t over stress the system, has the best chance of succeeding, and won’t have to compete with other initiatives?

In terms of guaranteeing success, nothing is certain with homo sapiens, particularly the teenage variety. I’m reasonably satisfied, though, that the administration has met the above criteria for the 9th grade leveling up initiative. The goals are clear: 1) increase and enhance learning for all 9th graders, whether their entering skills are weak, average, or advanced; 2) decrease racial segregation in CRLS classes; and 3) increase the number of students who take advantage of Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s dizzying array of extracurricular activities. Why the third goal? Because when young people feel connected to their school and other students, they seek out extra opportunities to learn in the school setting. That self-initiated learning multiplies the effect of the initiative.

To prepare to teach the leveled up classes, CRLS English and history teachers have been working with a national expert on how best to teach an honors level class to students of varying ability. Not content with teacher preparation alone, CRLS principal Damon Smith has also set a goal of smaller-than-usual class sizes: 17 to 18 students for the honors English class and 13 to 15 for the support class. These small classes will increase teachers’ ability to get to know their students and to develop their classes into communities of readers and writers. Teachers will be able to assign more writing and students will have more opportunity to participate in discussions.  Talking is critical to learning, but giving all students a chance to talk in class every week gets exponentially harder with each additional student.

Every English class will also have a special educator who will co-teach with the English teacher for half of each class period. If 9th grade enrollment is higher than expected, the Superintendent has included “reserve teacher” dollars in the budget that can be used to hire more teachers. As a School Committee member and former CRLS parent, I’m extremely invested in the success of this effort. I would have preferred a formal cap on the class sizes rather than just numerical goals, but if Damon Smith is committed to his own vision and does everything to meet his own goals, I can live with a couple of sections having an extra student.

Detracking the 9th grade English and history classes at CRLS is the right thing to do. Along with students, teachers, and other parents, I’ve pushed to have untracked humanities classes in students’ first year of high school since my older daughter started at CRLS in 2006.  That the Cambridge Public Schools are taking this on with care and planning bodes well. Good school districts don’t respond to new ideas by listing the reasons they can’t be done. Nor do they grab at brass rings. Our new superintendent seems to understand that initiatives need preparation, resources, and the full attention of our school leaders. It’s a good start.

Overview CRLS
Photo by CRLS parent Romana Vysatova

Emily Dexter is a first-term member of the Cambridge School Committee and a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes.  I also have a newsletter about Cambridge School Committee policy decisions. You can subscribe by going to my School Committee website: www.emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Emily Dexter
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Honestly, are we still debating this issue? How many parents, if offered a choice between a 1st grade class with 18 children and one with 22 would choose the one with 22?  Or if offered a class with 22 students with only one teacher and 22 students with two teachers would prefer the classroom with only one teacher? How many middle or high school teachers would prefer to teach an English class with 24 students vs. 18? How many expensive private schools advertise that their classrooms have 24 students and only one teacher? Those that do, don’t stay in business long.

And yet, whenever I mention reducing class sizes or hiring more teachers to reduce teacher:student ratios in public schools, someone will inevitably protest that the research on class size isn’t conclusive (true of almost all research), or it’s “teacher quality” that counts—quality, not quantity, as if I want to pull people off the street to teach in our schools. screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-6-21-28-pm

At a state and national level, the question makes some sense: large-scale class size reduction is expensive, and it can be, in some regions, hard to find lots of good teachers in a short amount of time. (Which is not to say that large-scale class size reduction can’t and isn’t being done.  It can and is.) But in a small district like Cambridge, where we receive more than 1,000 teacher applications a year, and where, for example, decreasing 1st and 2nd grade class sizes to 18 students would increase the CPS budget by less than 1%, it can’t just be money and concern about teacher availability that prompts class size resistance and denial. It has to be something else.

I think it’s a conceptual problem: 1) difficulty viewing teachers as skilled professionals, in part because most public school teachers are women; 2) difficulty viewing children and young people from low-income and poor families as complex individuals with unique needs and personalities; and 3) a holdover industrial era attitude that “production costs” will increase if we assign fewer “students per teacher.”

This is the opposite of the thinking shown in the private schools that cater to affluent parents, who pay a lot of money to guarantee that their children are treated as valued individuals.  What these schools offer are carefully crafted learning environments in which rich, high quality teacher-student interactions are the norm, not the exception.  Students get lots of individual and small group attention every day, even if that attention sometimes means the teacher just observing the students working on their own. In fact, small class size is often the most important feature that private schools advertise.  The classroom, not the school district, is viewed as the site of learning.  High-quality teacher-student relationships are viewed as the medium of learning, not a nice-to-have  by-product.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-15-07-pmIn public education, unfortunately, it’s different.  Imagine a top flight law office where the lawyers (mostly men) say they have too much work. Do the bosses bring in consultants to provide professional development so the lawyers can learn to work faster? Do they tell the lawyers, “If you were skilled lawyers, you would be able to handle all these cases?” Or do they presume the lawyers are competent and so they hire more lawyers and paralegals to help with the workload?  Teachers, though, are not treated like professionals. They are unavoidable service delivery units, the fewer the better. Who wants to bring in even more empowered professional women when the goal is to reduce the role of teachers in schools? Easier to build a better gym.  

Does class size matter? Ask the professionals. Ask the students.  And ask the parents who pay top dollar to send their kids to private schools.

CPS Budget Priorities for FY18

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes.  I also have a newsletter about Cambridge School Committee policy decisions. You can subscribe by going to my School Committee website: www.emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Emily Dexter, Ed.D.
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

CPS Budget Priorities for FY18

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the CPS budget priority for FY18 should be to strengthen our staffing infrastructure. By that I mean teachers, special educators, family liaisons, classroom aides, school social workers, guidance counselors,  intervention specialists, and other school level staff who work directly with CPS students and families.  Not only do we need the right professionals in our schools, we need enough professionals. This is particularly true at the transition grades of 1st-2nd, 6th, and 9th-10th. These are the grades where we should be front-loading resources to set students up to succeed.  Enough staff means, at minimum:

Family liaisons in every school, including the upper schools. Family liaisons are a unique component of the Cambridge Public Schools.  Currently CPS has liaisons in the elementary schools and at the high school. Adding family liaisons to the upper schools is essential if we want families to feel connected to their child’s CPS experience from preK through high school.  Liaisons don’t just give tours. They forge relationships with families and serve as the point-person for community-building. (4 liaisons +0.4 for Amigos * $40,000 = $176,000)

Smaller class sizes for all 1st and 2nd graders.  Educators don’t agree on a lot, but they do agree that children in the early grades should be in classes of 18 or fewer, PARTICULARLY in schools with low-income children. That’s because young children need a lot of adult attention and, for academic language development, a lot of opportunities to talk to adults.   With our 1st-8th grade class size cap of 25, some of our youngest children end up in classes that are 40% larger than is developmentally appropriate. First and 2nd grade are THE CRITICAL grades for learning foundational reading and math skills.  If we want to close opportunity gaps that are rooted in poverty and family stress, this is the place to start. Reducing 1st and 2nd grade class sizes would require only 2 additional teachers per school. If we can’t find the extra classrooms right away, those teachers could co-teach with the current 1st and 2nd grade teachers.  (2 teachers * 12 schools * $65,000 = $1,560,000)

Special education co-teachers in all upper school math classes and all 6th grade ELA classes.  When the Innovation Agenda was first discussed, School Committee members asked for co-teachers in every math class, 6th-8th. What they got was 6th grade only.  Upper school students, during their 6th-8th grade careers, take 15 academic classes in English, math, social studies, science, and world language, but have a special educator as a co-teacher only in 6th grade math.  With increasing upper school enrollment, class sizes are getting larger. Having co-teachers in all upper school math classes and  6th grade English classes would require three more teachers per school. It would be worth it.  (3 co-teachers * 4 upper schools + 1 co-teacher for Amigos * $65,000 = $845,000)

An additional reading specialist in every elementary school.  There’s good evidence that one-to-one or very small group reading lessons accelerate the learning of students reading below grade level, but only if that intensive teaching happens every day.  Once or twice per week does nothing for struggling readers.  Most CPS elementary school principals use School Improvement Funds to hire  extra part-time reading teachers, which is NOT what School Improvement Funds are for.  At minimum, we should give every elementary school one additional full-time reading specialist, which would total 12 additional specialists.  (12 reading specialists * $65,000 = $780,000)

School-wide social workers in every elementary school.  Every school in Cambridge has an on-site school nurse responsible for students’ physical health, paid for by the City’s public health department. Why don’t our schools have on-site mental health specialists, such as school social workers?  If we’re going to educate the whole child, we need professionals in our schools who are trained in mental health and school climate. We currently have four schools with half-time school-wide social workers, which is a great start. To have a full-time school-wide social worker in every elementary school would require 10 more social workers.  THIS IS A COST WE COULD ASK THE CITY’S PUBLIC HEALTH DEPARTMENT TO TAKE ON.  (10 social workers  * $65,000  = $650,000)

Smaller class sizes in all 9th and 10th grade English and math classes. The state’s Foundation Budget is based on a presumed enrollment of 17 students per high school class. The average class size in BB&N’s high school is only 12 students.  Imagine how much more CRLS students could learn if their 9th and 10th grade math and English classes were capped at 18 students. Front-loading resources — investing more in students when they are in 9th and 10th grade — would prepare them for more rigorous study in their 11th and 12th grade classes.  This would require, at most, 3 addition math teachers and 3 additional English teachers. (6 HS teachers * 65,000 = $390,000)

Smaller caseloads for high school guidance counselors.  CRLS has 1,900 students and many curricular and extracurricular opportunities. It’s a resource-rich high school for students who have enough systems know-how to navigate complex environments.  Students who don’t have that know-how, and whose parents don’t have that know-how, get much less out of our high school. That’s why we need a strong guidance program with counselors who can get to know their students’ interests, connect them to opportunities at CRLS, and help them plan their post-high school futures.  Guidance counselors can’t do this with their current caseloads of 240 students.  Reducing caseloads to a more manageable 160 students–40 per grade–would require only four more counselors.  (4 guidance counselors * 65,000 = $260,000)

[Already decided upon: Full-time art teachers in every school and elementary world language program.  During budget discussions last year, the School Committee passed motions specifying that in FY18: 1) CPS would provide full-time art teachers in every elementary school.  Currently several of the schools have only part-time art teachers.  2) CPS would begin an elementary world language program.  Both these motions require funding for additional art and world language teachers.]

To bring CPS to the level of staffing suggested above (not including the art and world language teachers) would cost an additional $4,661,000.  If the City picked up the cost of school-wide elementary social workers, it would add only $3,881,000 in salaries and $1,087,000 more in benefits to the CPS budget — a total increase of $4,968,000. That’s only 3% more than what we spend now.  With commercial property owners paying two-thirds of Cambridge’s taxes, that’s less than $40 extra per household.

Before we try the fancy stuff — new curricula, new data systems, new professional development initiatives, let’s ensure that every CPS school is well-staffed.  In FY19 we can turn to the fancy stuff.

For more on the CPS budget, see previous posts, including “Why Do We Spend So Much” and “Well-Staffed Schools and Classrooms.”

https://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/why-do-we-spend-so-much-2/

https://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/well-staffed-schools-and-classroom

Comments welcome.

Is teamwork important when it comes to elected school boards?

leander-football-game-16I hear a lot, in school reform discussions, about teamwork and the importance of school boards and school committees acting “as a team.” I’m not sure where this emphasis comes from, but I suspect it’s from the contemporary idea that public schools are essentially businesses that deliver products to clients, that superintendents are CEOs, and school boards are like corporate boards of directors or product-development teams.

Or maybe this emphasis comes from the way Americans love to discuss complex ideas through football metaphors. Either way, elected bodies are not teams, and the public should be concerned when school boards start talking more about teamwork than they talk about the issues. Here’s why:

rivalryThe quintessential team is the sports team. They have owners, coaches who pick the players for their athletic skills, designated roles for every player on the team, and a clear goal: to beat the other team and win games. Similarly for corporate teams, the CEO hires employees with particular professional skills, can replace team members if they aren’t working out, and their goal is to create products that are better than the products created by other teams. In both sectors, members of the team don’t vote to make decisions, there are no explicit rules of discussion to protect unpopular or minority views, and the boss or coach always makes the final call. Teams are not democratic entities.

Elected bodies, however, are a different type of organization–they are democratic entities. No one selects the members except “the public,” their skills are not necessarily complementary, and their goal isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, to win a game or be the best.  (Does any school board, for example, really want other districts to provide a worse education to their students?) In fact, the goals of elected bodies are never clear and can’t be: circumstances are always changing, the public is always changing. As is said in postmodern parlance, the goals are “always being contested.”

Far from coming from the same athletic or professional background, elected officials come together with different experiences, different values, and different mandates from those who voted for them. The more diverse the city they serve, the less they will have in common. If their city has ethnic, race, language, gender, economic, and other types of conflict–which every city has, the elected officials will include representatives from communities that are in conflict with one another.  Fundamentally, those conflicts will be over values and resources. The officials will bring those conflicts to the task of governing, and in fact, that’s what they are elected to do. If individuals and groups weren’t in conflict, we wouldn’t need government because everything would just fall into place in one big love-fest.

Government is the social organization of conflict and competition for resources.  Though not always successful, government is designed to keep us from killing each other.

citlewcommittee1p081815Group conflict is a good and necessary thing because it brings diverse people together to find solutions to problems their group can’t solve on their own. In a lot of sectors, including businesses and the arts, heterogeneous work teams have been found to be more creative and productive than homogeneous teams. Why? Probably because they are less team-like than homogeneous teams, the members are more independent of one another, they can act more as individuals rather than as members of an in-crowd, and their primary commitment is to solving a problem or creating something new, not to getting along with each other or making sure the team always appears unified.  Whenever groups of people start worrying more about appearances than what they are actually accomplishing, it’s a problem.

Disagreement and difference are essential for problem solving. Too much agreement, too much focus, narrows the field of what’s possible. We learned that back in the 1950s when psychologists discovered “groupthink.” The Best and the Brightest who brought us the Vietnam War were a great team, everyone heading in the same direction,  focused on the same goal–stopping the spread of communism. Except it was the wrong goal because they missed the bigger picture–their focus was too narrow, their knowledge too limited. What we’ve learned since then is that one of the biggest threats to good decision-making is the suppression of conflicting information and alternative viewpoints, i.e. groupthink.

Another crucial way that school boards are different from teams is that elected officials represent the public. That’s their most important feature because otherwise school districts would appoint their own boards of directors, which is what private and charter schools do. When those boards of directors convene, they are not obligated to represent the conflicting interests of the people in the community or to be responsive to constituents.  They aren’t required to function as a democratic institution in which decisions are made by majority vote. They are free to make decisions by consensus or tacit agreement, i.e. to be undemocratic.

play-american-football-step-10When elected bodies start saying the most important thing is teamwork, they risk losing sight of the obligations they have to the public and its diverse constituencies. Elected bodies that function as a “team” can mean that the elected officials are on the team and the public is not.

Or, even worse, that the public is the opposing team. One of the quickest ways to create team solidarity is to have a common opponent.

 

FY17 Budget Summary & Reflections

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes. This is where I post essays, book reviews, and thought-pieces about education, particularly as related to the Cambridge Public Schools.  I also have a newsletter that I use to keep constituents informed about Cambridge School Committee meetings, policy motions, and decisions, which you can subscribe to by going to my website: www.emilydexterforcambridge.com.

Emily Dexter, Ed.D.
Public School Advocate
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

Budget Summary & Reflections: A review of the elementary program, class size issues, social workers, art teachers, K-5 world language, CRLS enrollment increases, upper school family engagement

The days are getting longer, more birds, and the school year is wrapping up, with only one more School Committee meeting—Tuesday, June 21st. There will be a summer meeting on Tuesday, August 2nd, 6:00 pm, and an SC retreat on August 16 & 17, both open to the public. Regular meetings resume on Tuesday, September 6.  (School year meetings are the first and third Tuesday of every month.) The new superintendent, Dr. Kenny Salim, starts on July 1.

In terms of the CPS budget for next year ($172 million), the final vote in April was five members voting “yes” and two of us voting “present.” I had reservations about the budget but chose not to vote “no” as a gesture of goodwill to the administration and my fellow School Committee members. I did not vote “yes,” however, because: 1) the budget was almost identical to the previous year’s budget, showing little response to teacher, parent, or community testimony at the budget hearings, 2) staffing is inequitable across the 12 elementary schools, even taking into account demographics, with some schools spending up to half of their School Improvement Funds for supplementary instructional staffing; and 3) the process allowed for too little deliberation about the actual details of staffing and spending.  We had several meetings about our general budget goals at the beginning of the process, but discussed the actual Proposed Budget for only two hours before the day of the vote, even though the budget describes how Cambridge will spend 30% of its municipal budget. (We also had one  two-hour question-answer session with principals.) I hope we will have a much more robust discussion next year about actual staffing and spending decisions as proposed by the Superintendent. See Cambridge Day for some excellent articles on the budget process, including about the final vote: Cambridge Day article final CPS budget vote. The video of the final budget discussion and vote is at:  Budget Vote Meeting Video

There were, however, some positive outcomes to the budget process. The most important was that the administration made a commitment to review comprehensively the elementary JK-5 program, including class sizes and staff allocations. Though the Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education indicated that her ideal is for all 1st and 2nd grade classes to be no more than 20 students, roughly 300 1st and 2nd graders (30%) are projected to be in classes of 21-25 next year.  Some schools have full-time aides in some or all 1st-5th grade classrooms, others do not. The number of intervention teachers per student varies widely across the 12 elementary schools, again even taking into account school demographics. The administration also indicated that they might want to provide some or all elementary schools with math intervention teachers in FY18. The SC also voted to fund, in FY18, full-time art teachers in the elementary schools that currently have only part-time teachers, and indicated a commitment to beginning a K-5 world language program in FY18.

The FY17 budget did add, for next year, two half-time social worker positions to be assigned to two of the elementary schools. (Other social workers in the schools are assigned primarily to special education.)

Another positive was the substantial discussion about the rapidly increasing enrollment at CRLS. The two biggest questions were: 1) Are class sizes getting too large? and 2) Are students able to enroll in most of the courses they sign up for, or are they being closed out of too many classes? In sum, does CRLS have enough teachers? CRLS will hire at least three more teachers for the coming year—two in English and one in History, which should help reduce class sizes in those subjects. The CRLS principal indicated that he would like all required academic classes to have no more than 20 students.

Finally, though the four upper schools were not given family liaisons in the budget, they were given $25,000 each for family engagement.  They can use that money to help pay for a staff person or for other purposes related to family engagement.

Thank you for reading!  Comments welcome!

-Emily Dexter

Why Do We Spend So Much?

The School Committee is coming to the final step in the budget process: reviewing revisions to the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget and then the vote, which is scheduled for this Tuesday, April 5th.  The meeting will start at 6:00 p.m. with Public Comment, the Committee will then discuss the revised version and ask for some tweaks, and, if everything goes as planned, vote on the final version. The public still has the ability to weigh in via email (schoolcom@cpsd.us) or at Public Comment Tuesday night.

The Superintendent’s Proposed Budget is posted at: Budget on CPS Website.

In terms of staffing, the Proposed Budget is very similar to last year’s budget. The total, $172 million, will be about 30% of our municipal budget, which isn’t exorbitant in terms of our city’s resources. (We used to spend 33-34%.) Brookline also spends 30% of its budget on its schools, Boston spends 36%.  Dividing the $172 million by the number of schools we have (counting CRLS as five schools), we are spending roughly $8.2 million per school (school-level and district-level expenses), which is slightly higher than Brookline ($8.0 million per school).  Brookline’s eight K-8 schools, however, are much larger than our 16 elementary and upper schools (an average of 690 students per school vs. 300 in Cambridge), which is one reason their per pupil spending is much lower than ours ($17,200 in  vs. $26,200).*  Large schools are more cost efficient because they have fewer empty seats, fewer administrators and librarians per student, and less square footage per student to heat, clean, and maintain.   Our small school structure isn’t the only reason our per pupil spending is high, but it is one of the main reasons. Cambridge, at the K-8 level, has very small schools relative to most other districts. Research suggests that school size is not correlated with achievement, particularly at the elementary level, but there are undoubtedly other positive student outcomes of small schools that have not been measured. I.e. small schools may have positive effects, just not on test scores as measures of achievement.  Our small school structure, for example, may be one reason we have always had very high graduation rates for low-income students as compared with other districts.  Our preK-5 schools currently range from 258-363 students; our upper schools from 249-270; our high school, with 1,822 students, is divided, at least administratively, into four learning communities of 455 students each.

My main point is that Cambridge’s higher per pupil spending does not mean we are spending $9,000 more per pupil than Brookline on student learning, which happens primarily in classrooms with teachers. Most of the additional costs are for infrastructure.  In terms of spending on Classroom and Specialist Teachers (these categories and data are from the Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary), Cambridge spends only 10% more per pupil than Brookline–$7,700 in Cambridge vs. $7,080 in Brookline. I.e. Cambridge spends only 26% of its budget on teachers while Brookline spends 40%. Cambridge does spend a lot more on “Other Teaching Services” (librarians, paraprofesionals, medical services)–$2,300 per pupil vs.  $1,500 in Brookline, but even for these additional services we spend less as a percentage of our budget–7% in Cambridge vs. 9% in Brookline.  Total these two categories and we spend 33% of our total per pupil cost on teachers and “other teaching” as compared with almost 50% in Brookline.  Limited by Prop 2 1/2, Brookline is very parsimonious.

We do spend more on instructional materials, professional development, and a few other categories (our Athletics budget is triple that of Brookline), but most of Cambridge’s higher per pupil costs are for infrastructure and benefits: Administration (payroll, HR), Instructional Leadership (principals, vice principals, coordinators), Operations (utilities and maintenance), Pupil Services (buses, dining services), and Benefits and Retirement costs.  For Administration and Instructional Leadership–$3,150 for Cambridge vs. $2,110 for Brookline. Operations and Pupil Services–$3,946 vs. $2,230.   If Cambridge spent the same as Brookline on these four categories–Administration, Leadership, Operations, and Pupil Services, our per pupil spending would be only $23,200 vs. $17,000 in Brookline.  But the real killer cost is what we pay in Benefits (health insurance) and Retirement: $6,315 per pupil in Cambridge vs. $2,930 in Brookline–a difference of $3,400.  I haven’t figured out yet if that is due to higher benefit costs per current staff, retired staff, or both, but I hope to find out.

The main location of student learning is the classroom, whether it is a general education classroom, a semi-separate classroom, a resource room, or an art, music, or physical education classroom.  Classrooms are where students spend most of their time, and they spend most of their time with teachers.  Curricula, learning materials, those are important, but  the most important determinant of how much students progress every year is determined by the expertise of their teachers and the amount of quality attention they can receive from those teachers–quality and quantity.  Attention means anything from how much a teacher interacts directly with a student individually or in small groups (this interaction is so important for academic language and vocabulary development), but also how much time a teacher can spend individualizing instruction, observing a student, reviewing each student’s work, meeting with each student’s parents, and discussing the individual student with other teachers.  Teacher time and teacher attention are limited and can be stretched too thin. All else being equal, a teacher with a class of 24-25 students will have less time for each individual student as compared with having 18-20 students. In a classroom of 23-24 students, two co-teachers will, between them, be able to provide each student with more high-quality attention than only one teacher can, assuming they work well together.

Cambridge invests more than other districts in teacher hiring, induction, professional development, and coaching, which should result in having “better” teachers–teachers with higher levels of expertise. (We also receive hundreds, if not thousands of teacher applications every year, meaning we have the pick of the strongest new teachers entering the field or wanting to change districts.)  Those investments in teacher supports, however, are relatively inexpensive compared with hiring and supporting more teachers in order to give students more high quality attention every day in their classrooms.  The combination of a strong teacher support system and lower student-teacher ratios, however, should be the most powerful combination–lots of high quality attention for every student. Right now, our district-wide student:teacher ratio (not the same as average class size) is 10.3 students to one teacher–the same as in Salem and Watertown, a bit lower than Newton, which has 11.6 students per teacher.  In Newton, roughly 11% of students qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch; in Cambridge it is 44%.

I’m currently reading James Ryan’s book, Five Miles Away, A World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America (Oxford U. Press, 2010). Ryan is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and his book contrasts a high school in Richmond, Virginia, with a suburban high school five miles away.  Noting that urban school districts often spend more than suburban districts, Ryan writes:

    “[T]he truth is that no one really knows how much it costs to provide a good education to poor students in high-poverty schools, which places urban schools like Tee-Jay [the Richmond HS] in a difficult bind.  They may receive more money than their suburban counterparts, but it still might not be enough….[But] the prevailing incentive among suburban legislators, whose constituents have no immediate stake in urban schools, is not to increase spending on city schools, but to limit it.  This political dynamic has naturally attracted legislators to alternative reforms that do not revolve around money.  The most important to have emerged over the last two decades are school choice and standards and testing. (Pg. 8.)

(Another low-cost reform is Professional Development.)

We don’t have very high poverty schools in Cambridge as compared with bigger and more segregated cities like Boston and Chicago, but we are not a suburban school system that primarily educates English-speaking, middle class students with college-educated parents and stable homes and incomes.  Almost half of our students have incomes low-enough to qualify for subsidized meals at school; a large percentage live in subsidized housing. So is $170-180 million a lot for Cambridge to spend on our schools? Too much? Not enough?  What would we be willing to spend to give our students schools and classrooms that were even better staffed in terms of number of qualified teachers per student?

Comments encouraged.  Thanks for reading.

*DESE website pages related to teachers per student and per pupil spending can be found on their “Profiles” pages:  DESE Profiles.  Look for the tabs labeled “Teachers” and “Finance.”

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