Cambridge Needs More Classroom Teachers
The good news in our city is that enrollment in the Cambridge Public Schools (CPS) has increased by 20% since 2008. The bad news is that the number of classroom teachers (called “general education teachers,” as contrasted with special education teachers or technical-career teachers) has increased by only 10%. The problem is acute at the high school, where enrollment has increased by 27% and classroom teachers by only 8%. But enrollment increases have affected all the grades. Though we are one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the U.S., our students-per-general-education-teacher ratio (14.1 students per teacher) is higher than in Somerville (13.3), Salem (13.5), Boston (13.8), and Framingham (13.9). Out of almost 300 school districts in Massachusetts, we rank only 101 in terms of the number of general education teachers we have relative to our enrollment.
What’s worse is that we don’t strive to have small class sizes or low student:teacher ratios relative to other districts, though our wealthy city can afford it. Instead, we staff our schools and classrooms as if these were suburban schools in which every child has two college-educated parents. Massachusetts sets a “foundation budget” for all school districts that is based on minimum class size recommendations: 22 students per class at the elementary level, 25 at the middle school level, and 17 at the high school level. An extra three teachers are recommended for every 100 low-income students so class sizes can be even lower in urban and rural schools. This formula suggests that, at baseline, taking our low-income percentages into account, we need 224 classroom teachers for our elementary grades, but we have only 182; 66 for the middle school grades, but we have only 49; and 147 for grades 9-12, but we have only 103 academic teachers. Average class size at the high school now is 19 students per teacher—higher than even the foundation budget recommendation.
At the elementary level, our class size target for the elementary grades—22 students per classroom–is the same as the foundation recommendation, not taking low-income students into account. Even with that target, 30% of this year’s 1st– and 2nd-graders are in classrooms of more than 22 students. What’s more, many educational experts recommend class sizes of 18 or fewer in the early grades, not just for achievement, but for social and emotional development; particularly in districts that, like Cambridge, have high percentages of low-income students. In fact, before 2009, our class size target for grades 1-3 was 18 students, not 22. To make things worse, when we increased our 1st-3rd grade class size target from 18 to 22, we decreased the number of paraprofessionals in our schools from one hour of paraprofessional time per 9 students, 1st-8th, to one hour per 13 students, 1st-5th. This created a situation in which many teachers had more students in their classrooms, but less help.
The increased enrollment in our public school system is a good thing, and there are exciting things happening in our schools. But we need to make sure we have enough educators in our schools and classrooms to ensure that students get the personalized attention they need and deserve, which Cambridge can afford.
Every year our educators testify at public hearings that they need “more hands, hearts, and minds in the classroom.” At last year’s hearing, one teacher summed it up:
“I know I’m going to sound like a broken record. Educators have been asking for much the same thing now for many, many years. In every school in this city, there are classrooms that cry out for additional teaching support in the classroom; not for more professional development that takes teachers out of the classroom, not for more pull-outs that take students away from the classroom, but more support, more teachers in the classroom….Some classrooms at every grade level, K-12, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the middle schools, need to be co-taught by two experienced, licensed educators. It’s what they need, it’s what they’ve needed since the start of the Innovation Agenda….Every elementary school classroom that doesn’t already have one needs a full-time paraprofessional. Paraprofessional hours were cut drastically over the past twenty years in various stages, starting at a time when the social and emotional needs of our students were dramatically increasing. I know this is expensive, but I don’t think the primary issue is money. Cambridge is not a financially struggling city. I think the issue is that despite the testimony of many educators over the years, the need is not seen as real and pressing. If you have any doubts, I would encourage you to come visit the classrooms and speak to the teachers where the need is greatest.”
Imagine how our city would react if our firefighters and police officers told us they didn’t have enough staff to keep our city safe. I don’t think they would be ignored.