Battle lines are being drawn in Florida’s escalating debate about how to meet a state mandate to shrink the size of public school classes.
This summer, the Florida Department of Education announced that it would ban the use of co-teaching as a way to meet the requirement. The practice is growing more common in districts struggling to comply with the class-size-reduction law.
The education department has ordered districts not to add any more classes taught by two teachers for that purpose. It also has advised districts that such co-teaching will be not be allowed after this school year, in accordance with the 2002 voter-approved state constitutional amendment mandating the smaller classes.
But the Florida School Boards Association and some districts are hoping to persuade the agency to change its mind. They say administrators and teachers have found the practice beneficial for student learning, and they argue that it helps new teachers gain expertise with the help of more-experienced colleagues.
Until this summer, the education department allowed districts to create co-taught classes, which have two teachers who team up to instruct up to 45 students in one room, as a way of satisfying the law. Usually, one teacher will instruct a large group of students while the other works with students in small groups.
Jennifer Fennell, a spokeswoman for the education department, said a recent study showed a major increase in the use of co-teaching among Florida districts in the past two years.
“We’re seeing it being used increasingly” to comply with the class-size-reduction mandate, she said.
The state will not penalize districts that allow existing co-taught classes through the end of this academic year. Ms. Fennell also emphasized that the state has not prohibited the practice of co-teaching as such, but only as a means of meeting the requirement for class-size reduction.
“Schools have some time to address what they need to address,” she said. “But really, they should have been working toward [small classes with one teacher] all along.”
The state school boards’ association has said it might sue if the education department does not reconsider its decision. The group is also working with state lawmakers to write legislation that would clarify co-teaching as an acceptable practice under the constitutional amendment, said the FSBA’s executive director, Wayne Blanton.
Florida schools are in the midst of implementing the class-size-reduction program, which voters approved three years ago against the wishes of Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. The Florida Constitution now mandates that, by 2010, pre-K-3 classes have no more than 18 pupils, grades 4-8 have no more than 22, and high school grades have no more than 25 students per class.
That mandate, which the legislature declined to rewrite this past year in order to give schools more leeway, has placed a hardship on districts across the state, many school leaders say. They say districts have struggled to find enough qualified teachers and enough classroom space to meet the new requirements.
Placing two teachers in one classroom saves much-needed classroom space. Some administrators also believe it helps new teachers gain experience from more experienced peers, or peers who have a specialty in teaching a particular subject or population of students, when they team teach.
Areas of the state with high growth have been particularly hard hit, and in addition to 65,000 new students at the beginning of the 2005-06 academic year, another 10,000 hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast have enrolled in Florida schools in recent weeks, Mr. Blanton said. (“Requests Seek Financial Aid, Policy Waivers,” Sept. 14, 2005) Mr. Blanton said that he had seen an increase in the number of districts using co-teaching, but that in each instance the practice was tied to the curriculum.
“More and more people are seeing meaningful results,” he said, “particularly with using young teachers paired with more-experienced teachers, or special education teachers.”
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said his union supports co-teaching when it is properly implemented. However, he said the spirit of the law does not allow co-teaching as a means of compliance. As for state leaders, he contended that they are interpreting the law strictly in an effort to drum up support for its repeal.
“A lot of districts are using co-teaching because they’ve been boxed into a corner by the state,” said Mr. Pudlow, whose group is an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “I sympathize with them because they’re caught between a rock and hard place.”
He added, though, that co-teaching “is not what the voters approved—they didn’t approve putting 40 to 50 kids in a classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Divide Over Co-Teaching Widens in Florida