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December 2011/January 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 4
The Resourceful School
Talk about difficult times for schools and teachers gets very concrete these days: 85 percent of U.S. school districts anticipate cuts to their funding this school year. In this issue of EL, teachers and school leaders share how they've made scarce resources go further, in terms of staff expertise, materials, coaching, and even the hours for learning in the day. Other voices in the issue look beyond the day-to-day fiscal woes schools face to consider the deeper implications—and causes—of shortages in public schools.
In "Four Takes on Tough Times" (p. 11), four experts on school finances weigh in on the fiscal crisis in schools, each emphasizing different aspects of the problem and different things they feel schools should sacrifice—or safeguard. Michael A. Rebell and Allen Odden, for instance, disagree on the importance of shielding small class sizes and beyond-the-basics courses from the budget ax. Contrast their two quotes below.
From Michael Rebell:
So the ramifications are getting serious. The research doesn't say it's catastrophic to go from 23 to 24 students in an elementary school class. But going to 40 students makes a huge difference… We're also seeing the effects of this in small schools, where they've got few options. AP courses tend to go first, eliminating a significant option for bright kids who are college-bound. It's especially troublesome when you're talking about small rural areas and high-needs schools in minority areas that are striving to overcome the achievement gap. (p. 13)
From Allen Odden:
Although both teachers and parents desire smaller class sizes, research shows that small classes make a difference only in grades K-3, and then at great cost. Lowering class sizes in other grades has virtually no effect on student achievement. Parents also push for more electives. No research shows that taking more electives improves performance in core subjects… Although all schools—elementary, middle, and high—should provide a full liberal arts curriculum that includes electives, proliferating elective offerings and spending more on them at a time when the goal is to increase student performance in core subjects represent a misallocation of scarce dollars. (p. 14)
With which perspective do you agree? Does class size affect learning? Should schools keep classes small, even if other things have to be cut, or might larger classes be a good solution to keep other elements of education from being sacrificed?
How important is it to continue to provide advanced and enrichment classes?
Many educators believe that advanced classes and enrichment activities must be preserved in curriculums—and according to Chris Gabrieli ("Time—It—s Not Always Money," p. 24), one way to do so is to expand the school day and year beyond the traditional time frame. Gabrieli claims that by forming community partnerships, schools can significantly expand their learning day without spending much extra money. Data from the 1,000 or more schools in the United States that have expanded their learning day indicate that additional cost per pupil of expanding time ranges from $1,300 right down to zero.
Review the examples of three "levers" that Gabrieli says schools can use to increase learning time: (1) adjustments to teacher schedules, sometimes including paying teachers slightly more; (2) partnerships that bring skilled nonteachers in to work with students as a regular part of the day; and (3) adaptive software, which allows for blended classes, with kids spending some hours in direct contact with a teacher and some hours working independently through online learning modules. Which of these levers could work in your area, considering your school or district's unique circumstances? How might the extra time help particular students you know?
Gabrieli mentions Brooklyn Generation School. By staggering teachers' schedules and making more use of nonteachers, this pilot high school gives students more learning time and teachers more planning time without increasing salaries. Look over a more detailed description of how Brooklyn Generation innovates with staff time in this EL article from a previous issue of EL, the May 2010 issue ("Rebuild It and They Will Come," p. 60).
Naomi Calvo and Karen Hawley Miles ("Turning Crisis Into Opportunity," p. 19) also discuss how schools can deliberately draw on teachers' different kinds of expertise—and rely more on coteaching—to free up time for both student and teacher learning. The Pittsburgh high school highlighted has built an amazing 2.5 hours of teacher planning time into every day by enlisting teacher teams to present some classes in large, interdisciplinary blocks and by having seniors spend time every day on individualized project-based learning.
In a special section in this issue, both noted education expert Diane Ravitch ("Changing the Poisonous Narrative About Schools", p. 54) and director of National Superintendents Roundtable James Harvey ("Privatization: A Drain on Public Schools," p. 48) discuss forces that they believe are deliberately weakening public schools and undercutting the tradition of public education as a common good. Ravitch says
Today you see a lot of governors enacting draconian laws that will damage public education and dismantle the teaching profession. You see it in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. And then you see President Obama and Secretary Duncan pushing charter schools and the evaluation of teachers by test scores. (p. 54)
Harvey argues that in a year characterized by severe budget shortfalls, state officials throughout the United States "arranged for the greatest transfer of public assets to private schools ever contemplated." He details how state and federal legislatures passed laws that cut money from public schools while promoting favorable policies and increasing funding for charters and private schools.
"What is lost in this assault [on public education]" Harvey claims, "is any concept of the public school as a public good… In the rush to privatize public education, we risk losing the sense that public schools are the people's schools."
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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