School Climate & Safety

Subtraction by Addition

By Joetta L. Sack — June 13, 2001 9 min read
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When Aileen Regan introduced what she dubbed a “writer’s workshop” to her 2nd graders here this school year, the class excitedly dove into the mysterious tasks of writing sentences and weaving their 7-year-old fancies into short stories. The first-year teacher shared their excitement at bringing the English language under at least partial control.

But then the class caught a nasty case of writer’s block. While they had quickly grasped the basic elements of writing, their stories lacked strong plots and juicy details. Ms. Regan, in her inexperience, came down with something akin to teacher’s block.

She didn’t know how to crack the problem. So she turned to Heather Craig, a colleague at Beach Court Elementary School with the title “primary lead teacher,” to show her how to keep her students engaged and learning.

Until 1999, neophyte teachers in Denver didn’t have people like Ms. Craig backing them up. But the district, taking advantage of some wiggle room in a 1998 federal law designed to reduce class sizes, decided some of that Washington money might be better spent making better teachers rather than simply more teachers.

Congress, taking its cue from President Bush’s education proposal, is moving toward legislation that could have the effect of making the Denver model much more commonplace. Under the competing versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization—the House passed its bill last month and the Senate is close to passage of its bill— the class-size-reduction money would be absorbed into better-funded “teacher quality” grants to states.

Now going into its third year, the controversial Clinton administration class-size program has generated the hiring of about 38,000 teachers with federal money nationwide, including Ms. Craig and 36 others taking part in Denver’s experiment to improve the skills of district teachers and offer them training from colleagues with extensive experience in fostering literacy.

While some researchers still question the benefits and costs of class-size reduction—and Washington lawmakers vigorously dispute if the federal government should be involved in paying teachers’ salaries at all— the program not surprisingly is proving popular with districts thrilled to have more federal dollars.

Flexibility Wanted

While the pending ESEA reauthorization language may de-emphasize President Clinton’s original goal of hiring 100,000 new teachers over seven years, many administrators say they would appreciate more flexibility in the types of teachers hired and how they spend the money.

The current law dictates that a district direct three- fourths of its allocation to hiring teachers for grades 1-3 in its most impoverished schools. So most districts have simply hired more teachers and spread out the student load. But a handful of districts, such as Denver, have used the money more creatively, while remaining within the law’s guidelines.

Now, on a brilliant Colorado morning at Beach Court Elementary, Ms. Regan and Ms. Craig are teaching the concept of “voice” to the 2nd graders. At Ms. Craig’s instruction, the children squeeze their eyes shut and and try to picture the scenarios she reads in an animated voice. They quickly open their eyes, and many hands shoot up to answer her questions.

Immediately after the lesson, the two teachers meet in Ms. Craig’s office to debrief and make plans for the next class.

Ms. Regan said that without Ms. Craig’s guidance, she’d likely be struggling and discouraged. Not only did Ms. Craig have a solution to her problem, she said, but “she was able to come into my class and show me, and it helped a lot to see her do it.”

In his 1998 State of the Union Address, President Clinton laid out a vision of hiring 100,000 new teachers to help reduce class sizes in the critical early grades. Denver’s chief of curriculum and instruction, Carla Santorno, had heard plenty of rhetoric and promises from Washington, and she and most others gave the initiative little hope.

Skepticism Rules

Even when the program was approved, in a last-minute budget deal between the White House and congressional Republicans in October 1998, skepticism ruled. Educators noted that many districts were already scrambling to find teachers, or might already have small classes in the early grades, or simply might have more urgent needs. Many conservatives criticized the idea that the federal government would pitch in to pay teacher salaries, a strictly state and local responsibility by their lights.

Many districts, in fact, say they have struggled to find qualified teachers and, in some cases, the classrooms to house them. Few have been able to integrate the costs into their local budgets, as Mr. Clinton intended, and district officials have lived with the fear that the federal government would yank the funding. Since its inception, the theoretically seven-year program has been authorized one year at a time.

In fast-growing Colorado, Denver school officials faced the challenge of finding enough qualified applicants for the “primary lead teacher” positions, called PLTs, for the 1999-2000 school year. Not only were they competing with suburban districts that offered better benefits, they were also looking for applicants who had several years’ experience and knowledge of up-to-date literacy research and teaching methods.

District leaders, who had already begun a literacy initiative, were not opposed to using the $2.5 million in federal aid to reduce class sizes. Some Denver schools needed more teachers. But district officials believed that some of the schools would do better with the PLT model to ensure that their teaching staffs, which included many new and inexperienced teachers, were up to par.

“We were fairly sure that class size alone doesn’t always affect student achievement,” although smaller classes are easier to implement than some other changes, Ms. Santorno said. A more immediate concern, she said, was that curriculum and research materials sent to schools was sitting on shelves because teachers lacked the time or expertise to use them.

Denver didn’t use the federal money to hire only PLTs, though. The district gave the qualifying schools a choice of gaining a lead teacher or another full-time teacher. Some schools opted for the new teacher, but many were intrigued with the concept of PLTs. Now, more schools are using or have requested PLTs, and some teachers say that they don’t believe they would have seen as great a difference had class sizes dropped by a handful of students.

With no clear path to follow, the 70,000-student district began defining the PLT role through trial and error, with no guarantee of a second year to complete the work in progress. District officials envisioned a job in which teachers would work with both students and teachers in the early grades, and also monitor and study research on literacy.

Denver’s program had its glitches. Some veteran teachers, the PLTs quickly found, were uneasy about or even hostile toward the concept. A handful of the first-year PLTs had good resumes but lacked the leadership skills needed to create a strong presence in their schools.

Lack of Unity

At Remington Elementary School, which sits practically on the exit ramp of I-70 in an industrial area northwest of Denver, teachers had not united behind a coherent reading strategy. Teachers used whichever methods they were most familiar with or that seemed to work best. This year, PLT Andrea Cuthbertson worked with all the teachers and classes to demonstrate what she had found to be the best models.

Principal Susana Cordova credits the approach with providing a much-needed boost to teaching and learning in the school, which typically ranks near the bottom on state assessments. Before, the school used Title I specialists to work with the students most in need, she said, but the teachers could not observe their strategies.

With the PLT model, both teachers and students have improved their skills, Ms. Cordova said, and she credits a recent rise in state assessment scores in part to the PLT program.

Many other districts around the country, meanwhile, report that the federal class-size-reduction program is working well. Most have used the money simply to hire new teachers, and officials say they believe that, in some cases, the smaller classes have led to better test scores, better teacher morale, and improved discipline and class climate.

The 14,000-student Wood County, W.Va., district has hired 11 new teachers for its highest-poverty schools. Frank Bono, the district’s director of federal programs, said the reinforcements have improved classroom climate, and that veteran teachers are happier and are more willing to try new methods. And, he said, scores on state tests have risen, although he cautioned it was difficult to tie gains specifically to the federal program.

But many district officials say they’d like to be able to use federal aid to hire teachers in other grades and for other roles, such as counseling. And some say they would like guidance from the Education Department on professional development and on evaluating gains made by students. In Denver, district officials offered new teachers a guarantee that they would still have jobs, albeit not the same jobs, if the federal funding evaporates.

Congress Approves

In Washington, the House and the Senate are poised to approve a plan backed by President Bush to consolidate the $1.75 billion Class-Size-Reduction Act funding with the $600 million Eisenhower professional-development grants, creating a new block grant focused on teacher quality.

Districts could use their allotments as they saw fit for hiring teachers in any grade, providing professional development and training, making changes in their tenure systems, or introducing merit-based pay, bonuses, and other incentives. States could also tap into 5 percent of the funding to revise their certification and licensure systems for teachers.

While a few Republican lawmakers still protest the program as federal intrusion, many seem resigned to overhauling it. Instead of calling for elimination of the class-size initiative, Mr. Bush proposed consolidation.

Sandy Kress, the president’s education adviser, said that if districts still wanted to use the money to hire more teachers, that’s fine with the White House.

“With the increase in funds, even with consolidation, the monies ought to be there to continue [hiring new teachers] if they choose,” he said.

Michael Cohen, who helped formulate the original proposal as Mr. Clinton’s education adviser, said that the Clinton administration’s initial plan was to require districts to show academic achievement in exchange for the money. Republicans deleted that provision in the 1998 budget negotiations, he said, because they did not want to commit to a multiyear program.

Mr. Cohen, now a Washington-based senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, said he had no problem with Mr. Bush’s proposal to allow more flexibility. In fact, Cohen said he believes districts will be more innovative if they know the money is likely to continue for more than one year.

At Denver’s Remington Elementary School, Ms. Cordova said that if the federal funding dried up, she would try to find other means of paying for the school’s primary lead teacher.

“I can’t tell you enough what having [a PLT] has meant to this building,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Subtraction by Addition

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