Final Comments on the FY16 Budget

Emily Dexter

Below are my comments on the Final FY16 CPS recommended budget.  Links to a pdf version of these comments and to the CPS budget and district documents are below.  I sent my comments to the School Committee and cc-d the City Council.  On May 13, 6:00 PM, the City Council will have its own hearing on the CPS budget, since it is part of the whole city budget.  Members of the administration and School Committee will answer questions asked by city councilors.

Dexter Comments on Final Recommended FY16 Budget (pdf)  (same as text below)

CPS FY16 Proposed Budget and related district documents:

Dexter Comments:  (Feel free to forward)

1.  One new reading intervention teacher for the King Open School

  • Adding one reading interventionists to the King Open School is an excellent addition, and will give the school a total of two full-time intervention teachers, which is the same as King and Morse, each of which have a reading interventionist plus a Title 1 teacher. Kennedy-Longfellow and Fletcher-Maynard, both smaller than King Open, will now each have 3 intervention/Title 1 teachers. Given KO’s large enrollment, this will bring the ratio of low-income students per intervention teacher from 140 students per reading interventionist down to only 70 low-students per interventionist. .
  • King Open’s two non-Ola 1st grade classrooms will each have 20 students, which will be 25% larger than projected for the first grades at Fletcher-Maynard (15 students each) and King Regular (15 students each), both Level 1 schools. Adding an extra 1st grade teacher to co-teach half-time in each of the KO first grades, or two full-time paraprofessionals, would undoubtedly help these teachers be more effective with Tier 1 reading and math instruction so they can more effectively teach their 20 diverse 6-year-old students, an estimated nine of whom will be from low-income families. According to the most recent census, Wellington-Harrington is the poorest neighborhood in the city in terms of income and adult education levels, so these students are likely to be “more poor” than low-incomes students in other CPS schools.

2.  An additional 1.0 FTE social worker to be split between two buildings

  • At the March 25th budget hearing, the librarian at the Cambridgeport School, Liz Phipps-Soeiro, testified, “We [my colleagues and I] feel strongly that there needs to be a community in each school consisting of caring adults that children can count on every day. And not with staff split between buildings…. What I heard [at the December budget hearing] was the call for building-level supports. Not more macro level positions, not more administrative positions, but positions in our schools, adults whom the kids see every day, adults who address the academic, social, and behavioral needs of all of our kids.” The plan to add half-time social workers at the school level is contrary to this testimony.
  • Social workers, by training and professional orientation, work within a community framework. It seems antithetical to the role of social worker to have these professionals employed as only half-time members of their communities.
  • Any SEL framework developed at CPS should start with practices that have already demonstrated positive effects on student outcomes. Whether or not the district formally adopts the City Connects program, their model has shown positive results with social workers who are full-time members of their school communities.

3.  An additional 1.0 FTE social worker to work as a coordinator at the district/administrative level:

  • Pg. 52 of the Proposed FY16 Budget indicates that since FY12, the administration will have added 8.1 FTE positions at the district level in the categories of: Administrative Leadership, Academic Coordinators and Directors, and Managers and Support Staff, plus another 8.0 principals/vice principals/building managers with the creation of the upper schools. Several CPS educators have publicly requested that no new positions be added at the district level, and more than 100 parents signed a petition last summer requesting the same. Perhaps it would be best for the administration to fully absorb the many positions added since FY12 before adding even more district-level staff.
  • Adding another district level social worker coordinator position, when only one social worker is added at the school level, will likely add to the frustration, cynicism, and low morale of teachers and parents.
  • One role of the proposed district social worker would be to participate in or coordinate an SEL Task Force. The administration, however, has already begun or is proposing a number of initiatives and task forces: Family Engagement, Highly Effective Teaching, Upper School Review, Cultural Competence Team, RTI Team, and multiple Curriculum Review Teams. Teachers have explicitly asked for no new initiatives. Establishing a district wide SEL Task Force before completing these other initiatives seems unwise. In the meantime, however, social workers should be added at the school level to address the immediate socioemotional needs of students not on IEPs, and pressing SEL issues in the classrooms. New SEL staff can always be added at the district level in the FY17 budget if necessary.

4.  New phonics and phonemic awareness pilot program and RTI consultation by Dr. Chris Parker, President of Ideal Consulting, Inc., at the Kennedy-Longfellow

  • Reading development in the early grades is an extremely complex process that requires a fine balance of the “Five Components of Reading” (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies). Though I’m sure that Dr. Parker is a dedicated educator, he is not a recognized reading expert, he does not have expert-level training in the reading field (his Ph.D. is in school psychology), and CPS is located in a metro area with many, many national experts in reading and reading disabilities. Rather than undertake a pilot program that has not been recommended by a reading expert, a pilot that targets only two components of reading, and rather than soliciting the advice of a consultant who is not a reading expert, CPS should use these funds for an outside expert evaluation of our K-12 reading/literacy program next year. Note that a major component of RTI is providing intervention support for struggling readers. I.e. reading expertise is necessary for anyone providing CPS consultation on RTI. CPS deserves, and can afford, an RTI consultant who is a nationally recognized expert at the level of Jon Saphier in his field. We are overdue for an outside evaluation of our reading and literacy program, particularly at the elementary level.
  • If I recall correctly, the administration stated last year that this year, 2014-2015, the elementary department would conduct a review of the elementary program, a major component of which is reading instruction. To my knowledge, no information about this review has been provided to the public or the School Committee. Note that this review was also to have included consideration of how to add an elementary world language program. Evaluating our reading curriculum, particularly in the elementary grades, seems more critical than evaluating our Responsive Classroom and Developmental Design programs, evaluations suggested in the FY16 budget addendum. Please note that although SEL was a School Committee budget priority, 3rd grade reading was also a budget priority.

5.  Anticipated DSAC funding to support Level 3 schools

  • Given the state’s budget shortfalls, it is quite possible that DESE will not have the amount of DSAC funding that it has had in the past. Our federal and state grants have decreased by almost $6 million since FY05. If Level 3 schools require funds for targeted improvement, CPS should not assume there will be state-level funding that has not yet been guaranteed.

6.  Galileo and new state-level Kindergarten Assessment (MKEA)

  • Though I am not opposed to all standardized testing, there is a national debate suggesting that students are spending too much time taking assessments. This has resulted, in part, because states have added interim assessments such as Galileo to the tests required by NCLB. Spending more time on testing, even if called “assessment,” is of particular concern for students who do not have access to structured enrichment opportunities outside of school. Adding more assessments to schools that have high percentages of low-income students is contrary to the idea that low-income students have the most need for enrichment learning that helps them acquire background information critical to reading comprehension and all academic learning. Frequent testing is also very stressful for students who are the most emotionally vulnerable.
  • The Seattle/King County NAACP recently expressed public concern about standardized testing. The Somerville Superintendent, Tony Pierantozzi, recently made public a letter he wrote to Commissioner Chester in support of Somerville teachers’ concerns about the time-consuming assessment associated with MKEA called TS Gold (Teaching Strategies Gold). See attached letter.
  • CPS lost a talented kindergarten teacher last year who left the district, in part, because of what she considered to be excessive and inappropriate assessment demands placed on kindergarten teachers and their 5-year-old students.
  • Before adopting any new assessments, CPS teachers should affirm that they believe these assessments will increase their ability to teach their students and will not decrease valuable teaching and learning time.

7.  Skillful Teacher course provided by RBT

  • I very much appreciate that Jon Saphier is a recognized national expert on teaching. His training might well be valuable for CPS teachers. However, the SC has already funded RBT training for all principals, literacy coaches, and members of the T & L Team and Cabinet but, to my knowledge, neither the public nor the Committee has received any evaluation information, such as participant surveys, indicating that CPS staff have found this training useful or informative.
  • Whether or not CPS staff have found RBT training to be useful, it is important for the Committee to understand that, at least to my knowledge, there is no research suggesting that this training has a positive effect on student achievement. The highly regarded district of Montgomery County, Maryland, which has student demographics very similar to CPS, has its own research department. When they evaluated the effects of RBT training provided directly to their teachers, they found that although their RBT-trained teachers were more likely to adopt RBT-emphasized teaching practices as compared with their non-RBT-trained teachers, there were no effects on student achievement.
  • To my knowledge, CPS teachers have not asked publicly for more training in basic teaching skills or in differentiating their instruction, though they have indicated that reducing class sizes will help them provide more rigorous and differentiated instruction. They have publicly requested training in culturally proficient teaching, teaching students with disabilities, and teaching ELL students. Many CPS parents and students of color have indicated in various forums that a critical issue in CPS classrooms is that teachers are not proficient enough, specifically, in teaching students of color. Given that our student body is two-thirds students of color but our classroom staff is 80% white teachers and 70% white paraprofessionals, professional development and coaching in culturally proficient and anti-racist teaching should be considered an emergency need, not a secondary need. Culturally proficient teaching is skillful teaching.
  • CPS teachers will be in a much better position to benefit from RBT professional development if they already have a foundation in culturally proficient, anti-racist teaching. Because teaching is a relational practice and not a set of procedures, the ability of teachers to form appropriate student-teacher relationships across race and culture divides should be considered the foundation of highly effective teaching in a city like Cambridge, not an add-on.

8.  No attention to class size, student-teacher ratios, or paraprofessionals in the FY16 budget

  • This budget does not address the issues raised by teachers, parents, and/or research about CPS class sizes, student-teacher ratios, or the need for more paraprofessionals. Despite teacher testimony, class sizes for high school CP and 9th grade class sizes have the same cap as Honors and 10th-12th grade classes. First and 2nd grade class sizes have the same cap as 7th and 8th grade classes. The district still projects that almost 30% of first graders will be in classes of more than 22 students with only one teacher and no full-time aide. First and second grade class sizes vary widely across the district, with large class sizes, even in Level 1 schools, having potentially negative effects on low-income students, students with disabilities, ELL students, and students with advanced learning needs. There will be 2nd and 3rd grade SEI classes at Graham and Parks projected to have 24 students. It is quite possible that our need for intervention teachers would be reduced if we invested more in classroom teachers by reducing class sizes, double staffing more classes with two teachers, and hiring more paraprofessionals who can free up teachers for the higher expertise teaching tasks, particularly in critical grades such as 1st-2nd, 6th-8th, and 9th. (Our 3rd-5th grades tend to be smaller anyway.)

9.  Continued absence of family liaisons for upper schools

  • It’s rare that CPS principals make public their unfunded budget requests. The fact that the upper school principals made it known, this year, that they wanted family liaisons indicates that this is a real need. Liaisons have also always been a unique and valued feature of CPS schools.       Until the IA, all CPS schools had at least one family liaison, and we all know how important it is for schools and families to stay connected during the early adolescent years.
  • It makes little sense to form an Upper School Task Force to evaluate the success and further needs of the upper schools when principals and upper school families have already identified this as a gap in upper school staffing and programming.

10.  No movement forward on K-5 World Language

  • Values and priorities are expressed in actions, not in words. This district cannot claim to value world language and cultural proficiency when, after four years, it has not begun to replace the elementary world language programs that existed in our 6-hour schools before the IA. At the very least, a program could be piloted in grades 3-5 or 4-5 at the Baldwin School, as requested by parents. Our principals also need to be responsive to community values and parent engagement.  The positive effects of language instruction on English-language reading proficiency is far better researched and documented than any effects of the Kodaly music program.  The administration, however, continues to expand Kodaly without even piloting a world language program in our 6-hour elementary schools.
  • While both our Math and Science curricula apparently require only one director to coordinate both curricula, we continue to support a full-time World Language coordinator (who seems very competent) to oversee a curriculum that, for most students, does not begin until 6th grade and which, even at that grade, is a part-time curriculum. This seems like a waste of district money and of professional talent.
  • Our World Language coordinator seems very capable of designing an imaginative and effective pilot program, and is already supporting Spanish and Mandarin non-immersion language programs at Fletcher-Maynard and King Regular.

11. CPS continues not to have a full-time researcher or data analyst

  • CPS gathers multiple types of valuable data, which, if analyzed to answer specific research questions (such as whether there is a strong relationship between early grade absences and poor MCAS scores), could inform policy and help establish priorities. There is currently no professional on staff whose responsibility is to analyze data that could inform policy. As only one example, despite a presidential initiative focused on African American and Latino boys (My Brother’s Keeper), neither the Committee or the public have detailed information about how students in this “sub-sub” demographic group are doing in our schools. Or how African American vs. Black immigrant students are doing. Etc. This requires data analysis beyond that provided by DESE.

12. Increased funding for partners

  • The additional $80,000 for partners (almost a 20% increase) is an excellent addition, and I was glad to hear the School Committee’s commitment to providing support for the City Links program at CRLS. Not everything has to or should be done by CPS staff. We have excellent professionals and non-profits in our culturally-, artistically-, and educationally-rich city, and we should be using public funds to support organizations that need to spend far too much of their time fundraising. This is an excellent use of our tax dollars.

13.  Overall amount of the CPS budget

  • I very much appreciate that the City, via the City Manager, is granting CPS $500,000 beyond that required for maintenance, a 4.6% increase over last year. Please note, however, that with a projected addition of 99 students next year, the per pupil increase will only be 2.3% (from $23,117 for 6,777 students to $23,656 for 6,931 students). From FY05 to FY15, our average annual per pupil increase was 2.7%. (This takes into account the drop in enrollment.) Last year the PPE increase was only 1%.   These percentage increases are still far lower than for the City’s non-school budget, for which the 10-year average was 4.4%, and for the public safety budget in particular, which averaged 4.3%. (Note that although we haven’t eradicated crime and fires in Cambridge, our police officers and firefighters are not routinely characterized as “not effective” the way our teachers are.) We’ve also lost $6 million in state and federal education grants since the mid-2000s. If there are decreases in state and federal grants in FY16, it is possible we will end up with less per pupil than last year.
  • I also note again that the City Manager, 2 years ago, offered to increase the CPS budget by $4 million to pay for a one-hour longer school day. Given opposition by some teachers and parents, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. There is also no research consensus that this will increase achievement.
  • For a variety of complex reasons, CPS spends more per pupil than many other districts.       Many of our high costs do not reflect generous educational services, but instead reflect: our small enrollment relative to some Massachusetts districts, our very small school sizes, and our expensive busing program and operations. It is quite likely that in the future we will be able to reduce clerical and support staff through automation. We may also be able to reduce some educational positions through efficiency or changes in practice. Increasing the current school level staffing in CPS schools does not mean it needs to be a permanent increase. While we search for more cost savings, we should not deny our schools the staffing they need to be maximally successful with our very complex student body.
  • It is not a long-term risk to hire new school-level staff because there are frequent vacancies in all of our school-level direct service positions. If, in the future, we do not need to have as many teachers, social workers, paraprofessionals, psychologists, family liaisons, and so on, we will not be laying off staff so much as not hiring as many new staff every year.

Thank you for your consideration.

Emily Dexter


One thought on “Final Comments on the FY16 Budget

  1. Thank you Emily for the time and analysis of the CPS budget proposal.
    I hope that the School Committee and CPS Admin. take notice.
    Joan Sulis-Kramer


All comments welcome and appreciated.

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