In terms of staffing our schools, I believe we need much more staffing, for the early grades in particular: more trained adults in the classroom (not only volunteers and interns coming and going) and smaller classes so all kids can get the individualized attention they need to learn to read and do math. Other needs include on-the-ground support for principals; more guidance counselors at the high school to get more students into four-year colleges; and social workers because of the complex needs of CPS families across the income spectrum, many of whom have only recently come to the U.S.
Also in terms of the elementary schools, no one, including the school committee, seems to know how our intervention staffing works in the process called RTI (Response to Intervention). From what I can tell, it’s a patchwork of trained intervention teachers, Title 1 teachers, part-time per-hour teachers who have little time to meet with classroom teachers, and instructional coaches. And they all report to different people and have different levels of training. We’ve been implementing RTI for at least 4-5 years now, and DESE noted in their District Review that it was inconsistent across schools and staff were unclear what intervention approaches were being used with students. There seems to be a big focus on how students are assessed, on data systems to monitor their progress, but little focus on the instructional support that is actually being provided for students who currently need those supports. How are we helping them? How many days per week are they getting extra help? Is it enough to make a dent? (Twice or thrice weekly tutoring sessions are often not enough.)
In terms of the value of learning to read, it’s not just an economic necessity. I recommend an inspiring 22-minute University of Toronto TedTalk by literature professor Garry Leonard, who is half professor half stand-up comic. It’s called “Poetry in the Age of Anxiety: The Only Way to Live.” He explains the value of reading literature, while he also critiques Ted Talks and our modern obsession with the “PEPSI Mythologies”: Progress, Efficiency, Perfection, Satisfaction, Innovation. Today has no value because everything is going to be much better in the future. We’re not there YET. It made me think about how we talk about our public schools. There will be a golden age in the elusive future when every single teacher is excellent and every parent fully engaged, every child will score Proficient on MCAS, we’ll all share the same crystal clear vision for our public schools, all our buildings will be beautiful learning spaces, and we won’t have any missing ceiling tiles.
But as the mayor so aptly said in the recent Roundtable: “How do you affect change and have it done in a time frame that make sense to those in the building [the current students]. Not in tens years, but now.” But today’s Now is what the administration and school committee included in the FY15 when they debated it last winter. Next year’s “Now” will be whatever gets included in the FY16 budget when they plan it this fall and winter. For the students, their childhood is Now.
I learned a lot from the video. If the link doesn’t come through, just google TedTalk, Garry Leonard, Poetry.
Beyond that, middle school teachers at a CSAG forum two years ago, when asked what would help them differentiate their teaching to meet the range of learners in their classrooms, replied, “More adults in the classroom.” Imagine trying to differentiate a history or science lesson for 20-25 students whose reading levels range from rudimentary to college-level, whose background experience ranges from having rarely left Cambridge to having visited the Greek ruins during summer vacation. The opportunity gaps between poor kids in Cambridge and those with enormous advantages do not begin to be measured by differences in MCAS scores, and year-to-year percentage increases are little consolation for low-income parents who want their children to be the first in the family to go to college. As for the lucky kids who acquire skills and knowledge quickly and are whizzing ahead, they need differentiation and advanced opportunities as much as kids falling behind. Some of our 6th-8th graders are reading and writing on a college level.
When the school committee discussed creating middle schools in 2011, committee members mentioned over and over the the idea of double-staffing the math classes, which did happen for the 6th grade but not for 7th and 8th. There was much talk about having social workers in the schools, which is very much needed in many of our schools if not all. When one middle school was offered an additional staff member of their choice, they chose to have an extra school-adjustment counselor.
At the elementary level, some schools that had very strong art programs as JK-8 schools were able to keep their full-time art teacher when they became JK-5, but other schools ended up with a patchwork of part-time art teachers. Eight overworked guidance counselors at CRLS are each trying to counselor over 200 students on course selection and college & career options. That’s roughly the same ratio as at Lexington HS, where every kid has a parent with an advanced degree. The discretionary School Improvement Funds that allow principals and their school councils to make decisions about supplementary programming for their own schools is only about two-thirds what it was in 2007.
The list of what would make our schools adequately staffed and resourced to meet the needs of our much-valued diverse student body is a long list. But it’s hypocritical to say how much we love the diversity and then not staff the classrooms and schools to meet the very diverse needs of these students, each of whom grows up in the blink of an eye. We are not much better staffed at the school level than suburban schools with much less diversity, or urban schools who spend much less per pupil.
And as for targeting resources to struggling students, will we ignore the needs of advanced students? That’s not defensible either. Better staffed schools and more relaxed teachers, though, will benefit every student by allowing teachers to work more closely with advanced students as well. One of the most important components of individualizing instruction is being able to get to know every student well; it’s not a set of instructional techniques. Feeling known and understood by their teachers as individuals makes students feel valued at school and makes them want to learn. It also decreases adolescent disaffection. Providing social workers to help teachers and principals address school climate issues and students’ socioemotional needs also frees up teachers to focus on teaching, so they don’t have the full responsibility for situations for which they have no experience or training.
As for novice teachers, every year CPS has 80-120 new teachers. That means that every year we have roughly 300 teachers who have only 0-3 years of experience. These 300 novice and early-career teachers will learn much faster and be much better teachers in their first few years if they have smaller classes and more adults in the classroom, and are working in well-resourced schools. Think of what class sizes are in private schools? At Shady Hill, I believe the 1st grades have 20 students and 2 trained teachers, a 1:10 ratio.
Thanks for reading. Comments welcome.