What could cause a student to go from Student of the Month one year to nearly failing the next? Family problems, class size, social changes, and a more challenging workload could all be indicators of a rough academic year. For Shania, a third grade student at P.S. 148 in New York who was profiled in a recent Huffington Post article, a combination of these factors brought her grades so low she came close to repeating the third grade. She is not alone, especially among low-income, urban, and rural students in the United States.
Budget Cuts Lead to Overcrowding in Public Schools
The biggest problem for teachers and students like those at P.S. 148 is familiar in public schools across much of the U.S. Budget cuts have led to less teachers and larger classroom sizes. Students are receiving less one-on-one time from teachers to assist them with their academics and teachers have less time to stay informed on changes in students’ personal lives that could be affecting their academic lives. This onerous situation is taxing to teachers and leaves little, if any time, to work on grading papers, giving students specific feedback and planning for effective class facilitation where students can be involved in dynamic participation.
The National Education Association found there were the same number of education jobs in April 2005 as there are today. However, there are 300,000 more students, according to the article. That number is staggering and has implications for our economy in both the short and long run.
Federal Funding Not Aimed at Retaining Teachers
The problem with classroom overcrowding is simple: when a classroom made for 20 kids gets bloated to 40 kids, students won’t receive the attention or education they deserve and the achievement gap will continue to grow. The answer to classroom overcrowding is seemingly simple as well (employ and retain more teachers), however, there isn’t a budget for it.
The federal School Improvement Grant is a $5 billion grant that funds a three-year rescue effort to save the 5,000 worst schools in America. The worst schools are defined by the amount of kids who are performing at grade level (often at 20 percent or below) and graduation rates (at approximately half the students earning diplomas). However, even though federal money is pouring into these schools, no one is tracking whether or not the programs are having any effect, according to the Denver Post article “Cost Doesn’t Spell Success for Colorado Schools Using Consultants to Improve Achievement.”
Much of the reform efforts schools are using are described as being experimental, ineffective, and/or costly. But at what cost does employing more teachers and offering smaller classes come to schools? A basic and safe approach would be to give the growing number of students adequate space and attention they need to learn, to be noticed, to ask questions, and interact in small groups with their peers.
Creative Solutions for Overcrowded Public Schools and the Community
If school—students, teachers, parents and administrators—are to be effective given the current budget climate, we need a community-based model for education. In that model, the Public Library and the Housing Projects need to be the places where enrichment classes for students are held, tutors are available, and after school and evening mentor programs can thrive. During the summer, these same students need to be in measured and meaningful summer reading programs and classes like the ones LifeBound is conducting this summer in Omaha, Colorado Springs, and Denver. We need to support parents to provide enrichment classes for them on topics like how to set up a culture of learning in your home, how to advocate for your child so that they can learn to advocate for themselves, how to be a coach for your child, etc. These initiatives, along with the leadership from people like the physicians and staff at La Casa/Quigg Newton low-income clinic in Denver, promote reading and literacy with all family members with parents as positive role models.
Are these measures likely to turn around this situation in the short run? No, but we can in the short run mobilize the strength of our communities in ways that will provide more advantages to low-income students, their families, and their teachers. If we enact these partnerships now, we can work over the next few years to get class sizes back to a reasonable level while still promoting the gifts, talents, and abilities of every student learning in a packed classroom today.
“Cost Doesn’t Spell Success for Colorado Schools Using Consultants to Improve Achievement,” 19 February 20. The Denver Post. Accessed on 17 July 2012. http://www.denverpost.com/investigations/ci_19997418
“Larger Class Sizes, Education Cuts Harm Children’s Chance To Learn,” by Joy Resmovits. 14 July 2012. Huffington Post. Accessed on 17 July 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/larger-class-size-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659591.html