Friday, January 8, 2010

Board Members to Legislators: Give us the Tools to Keep Class Sizes Down

For the next few days, I'm going to be writing about our board member meetings with area state legislators. Several school board members have begun meeting in the St. Cloud area to discuss common issues. We share information about better ways to conduct school board meetings. We discuss financial and educational issues facing our respective districts. In short, we are learning from each other. St. Cloud board Treasurer and finance chair Hentges has been working with other board members in Rocori, Sauk Rapids, Sartell, and Foley to schedule the meetings and to help set the agenda. We in St. Cloud, as big as we are, have found that we have learned a whole lot from the board members of these other districts. This last month, board members decided that we would like to meet with area legislators to discuss our common financial problems, and we held the first such meeting last night.

Several of our legislators got stuck in the storm that racked the Twin Cities yesterday evening and could not make the meeting. But we were favored with the presence of Senator Fischbach, Representative Haws and Representative Hosch. We are so grateful that they took time out of their busy schedule to listen. The legislators took lots of notes, asked lots of good questions, and we had a great dialog. Thanks to them for coming. Board members intend to meet with other area legislators in the near future.

We hear that other board members across the state are doing the same thing, because boards across the state are concerned that the future of public education in Minnesota is in jeopardy. We know that there is a temporary financial crisis in Minnesota. We understand that these times require special measures. But we want to make sure that when we come out of this crisis, that we haven't done permanent damage to our public education system, upon which Minnesota's economic future depends.

Today, I want to write about Point One of our presentation. We told legislators that across the state, school districts are struggling to avoid making cuts in the number of teaching positions in their district. More accurately, we are struggling to keep our class sizes down, and to make sure that the number of students taught by each classroom teacher does not begin to rise. We believe that we cannot educate the children of the 21st century if we are forced to cut programs and raise class size. We told area legislators that we cannot maintain manageable class sizes unless school boards have the ability to control their costs, especially during tough economic times, and unless over the long run the legislature provides adequate revenues. We said that we understand that their is a crisis now, but over the long haul the solution lies in those two things. Adequate revenues and systemic reforms that promote our ability to keep our budgets in balance.

This goal, of keeping our core of classroom teachers in tact, in numbers and in quality, is at the center of the budgetary crisis that faces school districts across the state.

We said that the vast majority of school board members in the State believe that the State would be better off if we could pay our teachers more. Most people come to school boards because they believe in public education, and the business of public education is putting professional educators in classrooms. We said that adequate pay is critical to attracting and retaining quality professional educators. But, we said, have to have the ability to keep revenues and costs in balance. These twin ideas---that the legislature must face reality as to the cost of a quality educational program in Minnesota--and that there must be systemic reforms that keeps revenues and costs in balance--dominated much of our discussion.

But the key to all of this is that never before has it been so important that we keep class sizes down. Why is that. Well, first of all, parents and children expect reasonable class sizes. When we talk to parents, they persistently tell us that keeping class sizes manageable is at, or near, the top of their list when they consider choosing a public school and a public school system. And parents are right to care about class size. One of the most significant trends in education is the tremendous difference in the level of preparation and school readiness of the children who are arriving at school these days. Throughout public education educators are telling us that the students in the upper quartile are smarter, more accomplished, and are learning more than the kids at the top did a generation ago. That may be painful for many of us old folks to hear, but it is a fact. Today, our top students at Tech and Apollo are graduating with more economics, more mathematics, more biology, more chemistry, more literature, more history, by far, than we got in my high school, or you got in your high school. That's a fact that is irrefutable.

At the same time the kids coming to school from the bottom quartile of students are coming to us far less ready for school. Maybe in the old days there would be a difference in any given class of a few grade levels in reading and math. But now that gap, between the kids at the top and the kids at the bottom is growing dramatically. At the same time, we expect and insist that we will challenge the kids at the top, and that our teachers must also give the kids at the bottom the challenge that they need to catch up and realize their full potential.

In our district, and in many others, we have implemented testing systems designed to catch children who are falling behind right at the beginning of the year. We are asking teachers to intervene at once, and make sure that these students are making progress. We are saying, we don't want to wait until the end of the year to discover that a student isn't progressing. We expect that interventions will be implemented to make sure that students are progressing. We believe that we know how to accomplish this objective, and one of the fundamental components of implementing a regimen of high expectations for all students is manageable class size.

Also it is clear that more students are coming to us, in all school districts, who are in need of adult guidance, adult mentorship, and adult role models, than ever before. More children are not getting the adult guidance that they need at home, and more are coming to us needing that extra boost that an adult role model--an adult who can listen and inspire--can bring. We can complain about why this is happening, but the fact is that Minnesota's future depends upon young people gaining inspiration, mentorship, and guidance from adult role models and when we load up our teachers with large class sizes, it is harder and harder for them to serve this function.

We know that class size alone does not make a quality program. We know that if a teacher doesn't use quality teaching techniques, then keeping class size down doesn't return great dividends. But if we want to assure that this generation of students achieves to high levels, we must raise our standards for all students, and keeping class size down is a critical component of that strategy. That is what is behind the cry of school boards across the state: give us the tools to keep class sizes manageable. We need the financial support to employ enough teachers, and to properly compensate them. We need the tools necessary to control our costs, so that we are not constantly forced to cut teaching staff to balance our budget.

I'll have some more to say about what we told our area legislators in my next posting....

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