In terms of the SC motion in support of pausing the PARCC, I’m glad to see the school committee take a public stand related to a statewide policy. I don’t take such actions lightly. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the Cambridge school committee has very little power to affect DESE policy. (Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education.) By contrast, they have a lot of power to support CPS teachers via their decisions about how our schools and classrooms are staffed. These are the SC decisions that have an immediate impact on the daily lives of Cambridge teachers in terms of how much planning and co-planning time they have, how much attention they can give to each student, how much they can differentiate to meet the wide array of their students’ academic abilities, interests, socioeconomic resources, emotional resources, and cultural backgrounds, how much they can get to know their students’ families (most of whom are from cultures different from their own), and the degree to which they can help create energetic and optimistic professional communities in their schools.
I’m baffled, though, as to why the school committee, after soliciting teacher opinion on FY16 staffing and funding, did not use their actual power to insist that our schools have more teachers, intervention specialists, and other school level staff as requested by teachers and principals. And as supported by research. Even more baffling was the fact that when members of the city council tried hard to persuade the school committee budget co-chairs to accept more city money so CPS could hire more teachers and intervention staff (during the city council hearing on the CPS budget), the co-chairs expressed no interest in additional funding, with one of them arguing strongly against more staffing. I don’t know if the SC is too politically hamstrung to accept more funding, but I can’t think of any other explanation. Teachers and principals asked for more staff, DESE data suggests that CPS schools are not particularly well staffed, and there is good research suggesting that reducing class sizes and providing high-intensity interventions (frequent and sustained) improves student achievement, particularly for low-income students. The class size benefits have not only been found in the younger grades. (See links at end of this post.)
The CPS decision-makers frame the choice as between having more “bad” teachers versus fewer “good” teachers, quality vs. quantity, but this is not the choice we face in Cambridge. There are many very well-reputed teacher training programs in New England and the Boston metro area, CPS receives hundreds of teacher applications every year, and we pay better starting salaries than most districts. Newly hired teachers in CPS have access to high-quality professional development, an induction program, talented senior colleagues, and, if they teach in grades JK-8, instructional coaches who work with them in their classrooms. I.e. the choice in Cambridge is not between having one good teacher in the classroom versus two bad teachers, but between one good or promising teacher versus two. Hiring more classroom and intervention teachers would also give CPS the opportunity to hire more teachers of color, which is one of the SC’s highest priorities.
The amount of staffing in our schools affects teacher morale and their levels of stress, which affect how much they can take advantage of professional development, supervision, feedback. It affects their ability to take ownership of the curriculum and to take risks in the classroom, both essential to good teaching. A high level of teacher stress, like parent stress, has a negative affect on students’ psychological well-being, ability to bond with school, and ability to concentrate. High teacher stress is particularly damaging for students who also experience a lot of stress at home, which probably includes many or most of our students.
As we heard this year, teachers and principals do not feel that all our schools and classrooms have enough staff to allow them do their best work, whether they are novices, experts, or somewhere in between. Teachers and the CEA have told us for several years that teacher morale is low and stress is high. This year in the budget hearings, classroom teachers testified that they cannot support their most vulnerable students via a tiered system of instruction, a.k.a. RTI (Response to Intervention), not because they don’t have enough teaching skill, but because they don’t have enough intervention specialists and paraprofessionals in their classrooms.
Even our central administrators admitted this year that some CPS students are not receiving interventions at the intensity and frequency they need. Usually students working more than one year below grade level need daily, one-to-one or very small group intervention teaching for a prolonged period of time, a half year or a year, followed up by less intensive but long term extra help. I.e. Intervention instruction, by definition almost, is staff-intensive. Some principals use their School Improvement Funds to hire extra intervention teachers on a per hour basis, but that is not the purpose of SIP funds. The purpose of SIP funds is to give parent-staff councils the opportunity to experiment with new programming of particular interest or promise for their school community, not to shore up the basic academic program.
There is also, in our schools, a heavy reliance on volunteers and interns. We should be very grateful that we have a large cadre of volunteers and an excellent organization to recruit and support them, but these helpers, even if they are retired teachers, do not receive the ongoing professional development, supervision, or feedback that results in high quality teaching. We should be very clear, therefore, about what classroom tasks are appropriate for volunteers and interns and which are not. When CPS students go to the hospital, they do not have their blood pressure tested by volunteers, they do not receive any medical care from volunteers. And teaching the mind is often more complicated than treating the body. Just having a lot of adults in the classroom working with students is not the way to ensure that all students receive high-quality instruction and intervention services. Schools need to have enough trained, full-time, professional educators and paraprofessionals if they are going to meet the complex needs of all CPS students, elementary, middle, and high school. And of course, investing heavily in the earlier grades is extremely important and cost-effective.
Teacher testimony is not the only argument for increasing staff. There is credible research suggesting that ratios do matter and that intensive intervention is effective. In addition, comparing our staffing with that of other districts shows that CPS class sizes, student-teacher ratios, and number of intervention staff are not much better than in many other urban districts in Massachusetts, most of which have worse outcomes than Cambridge. Furthermore, staffing across the 12 CPS elementary schools is blatantly unequal and inequitable, with the larger schools having larger class sizes as well as larger caseloads for one-per-school professionals such as librarians, family liaisons, early literacy intervention teachers, not to mention principals. And none of our schools have as many staff per pupil as some of the independent schools that our school committee members are associated or familiar with. Or some of the charters.
Via the budget hearings and other communication avenues, teachers and principals this year asked for more teachers and paraprofessionals at some grade levels and for some populations (SEI students, middle schoolers, 9th graders), more intervention teachers in all the elementary schools (10 of the 12 elementary schools will continue to have only one or two full-time intervention teachers), more social workers in the elementary and middle schools, family liaisons in the middle schools, full-time JK-5 art and music teachers, smaller class sizes and co-teachers in some of the CRLS classes, and for the instructional coaching program to be reinstated at CRLS. None of these requests were extravagant, and those who spoke at the budget hearings were some of our most expert educators.
It is not, however, too late. Though the CPS staffing plan for FY16 (i.e. the budget) was approved by the school committee and city council already, the city’s half-billion dollar budget has enough flexibility in it to provide CPS with funds to hire more teachers, interventionists, and other school-level staff for the coming year. Since many teachers will retire in the next half decade, we will never be in danger of having too many teachers. Having more teachers of color would also be an enormous upside to increasing the number of teachers in CPS schools.
The video of the city council hearing on the CPS budget is posted on the city’s website, and the main discussion about whether CPS should hire more teachers and intervention specialists starts at 1:45 on the video: http://ec4.cc/ee82745c
A transcript of teacher testimony at the FY16 budget hearings, with a summary list of teacher requests, is at: https://publicschoolnotes.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/transcript-of-cps-teacher-budget-requests-and-priorities-at-cps-budget-hearing/ Teachers are identified in the transcript by school, but not by name.
Two reports on the unequal staffing across CPS elementary schools, are at: https://publicschoolnotes.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/unequal-schools-fy15-08-14-14.pdf and https://publicschoolnotes.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/school-a-and-school-b-comparison-final.pdf
A few research and policy reviews related to class size and student:teacher ratios, are at: