Districts Put Clinton Plan To the Test

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Not long after she finished work on her elementary education degree from Pennsylvania State University last spring, Denise Wisniewski packed her bags and headed for Columbus, Ohio, with the promise of teaching a small class of 1st graders.

In recent weeks, the future of class size reduction efforts has been ensnarled in a bruising budget battle between Mr. Clinton and Congress.

For Ms. Wisniewski, class size was one of the main attractions of Columbus' Pilgrim Elementary School, which serves about 260 low-income students. With just 11 children under her watch, she felt she would be able to provide more personal instruction. "When there are 30 kids, that's very challenging," she said.

Ms. Wisniewski is one of the 29,000 new teachers that the Department of Education estimates have been hired under President Clinton's much-touted program to reduce class sizes in the first three grades.

In recent weeks, the future of the 1-year-old program has been ensnarled in a bruising budget battle between Mr. Clinton and Congress. As of late last week, the two sides had worked out a compromise that would allow the program to continue, with slightly more flexible rules on spending class-size money for teacher professional development.

Outside the halls of Congress, meanwhile, school districts nationwide have been spending the $1.2 billion that federal lawmakers set aside for the program last year. In some cases, creative approaches—like a targeted initiative in the 64,000-student Columbus system, which has cut class sizes on average from 25 to 15 in a select group of high-need schools—are just what advocates in the Clinton administration were hoping for.

"That's a dramatic change," Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said of the Columbus effort. "Those teachers ought to be able to do something quite different."

Yet questions remain about Mr. Clinton's push for class-size reduction. As Republican critics on Capitol Hill have pointed out, class size is not the most pressing issue in all districts. And, critics stress, not all researchers are convinced that reducing class sizes is the best way to improve schools. Even those who find the research compelling caution that success hinges on the quality of the extra teachers hired.

Each school district "has unique students with unique needs—needs that cannot be adequately addressed by a one-size-fits-all approach," Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., wrote in a recent letter to the president.

District Variations

Currently, districts receive federal class-size dollars based 80 percent on poverty and 20 percent on the size of their total enrollments. Most of the money must pay for the recruitment, training, and hiring of new teachers to reduce class sizes to an 18-1 student-teacher ratio in grades 1-3. Up to 15 percent of the money may finance staff development of new and current teachers, and up to 3 percent may cover administrative costs. Under the new agreement between the White House and Congress, that figure would shift to up to 25 percent of funds. President Clinton says that, if funded over seven years, the effort would allow schools to hire 100,000 new teachers.

On Nov. 8, the Department of Education released preliminary data from nearly 46 percent of all school districts. Based on the numbers, the department estimates that 29,000 teachers have been hired, and that average class sizes have dropped by about five students, from 23 to 18, in participating schools. The respondents reported that 42 percent of the teachers hired were assigned to 1st grade, 23 percent to 2nd grade, and 24 percent to 3rd grade. The final 11 percent of the teachers were hired to teach other grades.

The department estimates that nearly all of the nation's roughly 15,000 districts are participating in the program.

The Columbus schools received $3 million under the program and hired 57 new, certified teachers, who were placed in 13 of the district's neediest schools. Rather than make slight class-size reductions in all elementary schools, said Dee T. Morgan, the chief academic officer for the Ohio district, Columbus wanted to make a more dramatic impact in selected schools.

Because of space constraints, some of the district's schools are trying different options, such as team teaching and providing smaller instructional blocks for certain subjects. And the district has incorporated a research component into its approach to see which strategies are most effective, Ms. Morgan said.

But the team-teaching concept, which Columbus and many other districts with limited space are using as part of their class-size-reduction strategies, worries some observers. The research often cited to promote the benefits of smaller classes, they say, does not recommend team teaching as a successful approach.

"That defeats the purpose," said Jeremy D. Finn, an education professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who is well-versed in the class-size research. "It absolutely depends on there being a small number of children in the classroom."

Another big challenge for many districts has been finding fully certified teacher applicants. Federal guidance stipulates that all teachers hired with the aid must be progressing toward full state certification, though alternative-certification routes are permitted. Under last week's agreement, emergency certified teachers may no longer be hired. Teachers already hired under the program have one year to become certified.

In California, the state's existing class-size-reduction program has already exacerbated a significant teacher shortage. As a result, the state asked for—and received—a waiver from the 18-1 federal class-size ratio. Many districts there that have met the state's class-size requirements are using the federal dollars for staff development rather than teacher hiring.

Mr. Cohen of the Education Department said no reliable data were available on how many of the new hires under the federal program lacked full teaching credentials.

The 215,000-student Philadelphia system, which received $12.6 million, addressed the issue in an innovative way. "We were already in the midst of a teacher shortage," said Nancy J. McGinley, the executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that works with the district. As a result, the district hired about 275 "literacy interns" with bachelor's degrees, who received intensive summer training and have been paired in classes with veteran teachers. They are also enrolled in an alternative-teacher-certification program.

Rural Concerns

In addition, many small, mostly rural districts were concerned earlier this year about a provision requiring any district that does not receive enough funding to hire a full-time teacher to enter into a consortium with others to share one. But the federal Education Department has granted waivers to dozens of states, and the new agreement reached last week would allow all such districts to automatically use the money for staff development.

Mark Mansell, the superintendent of the 112-student Mansfield school district in north-central Washington state, said his state received a waiver that allows districts to use the federal dollars for staff development or to pay part of a new teacher's salary.

Mr. Mansell, who chairs the small-schools coalition of the Washington Association of School Administrators, said, since the waiver, "I haven't heard anybody complain about wanting to have more flexibility."

In October, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released results from a survey it conducted last spring that asked districts whether they would prefer to use the additional money to supplant special education costs rather than to hire teachers. Of the 458 districts that responded, 52 percent said no, while 42 percent said yes; the other 6 percent said they were not sure.

Pennsylvania's secretary of education, Eugene W. Hickok, a Republican appointee who is critical of prescriptive federal programs, said he does not believe class-size reduction is a top concern for most school leaders in his state. "We're not experiencing this huge hue and cry over class size," he said.

Many Colorado districts were generally pleased with the program once the state gained waivers of certain provisions, according to Patrick B. Chapman, who coordinates the program for the state education department there.

"With the waivers we've obtained, [the program] has worked well," Mr. Chapman said.

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Districts Put Clinton Plan To the Test
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