Friday, May 27, 2011

Thoughts at the End of a Challenging Texas School Year

Photo by Flikr User redjar
Used Under a Creative Commons License
Today is the last day of school in my district. Usually, this day does not cause me too much pause or reflection because for the last four years since I've worked from the district technology department, it has signaled a transition from "school year busy" to "summer staff development and projects busy." I don't usually breathe or acknowledge the end of school until the first round of summer staff development is done in June.

But this year, things are different. I am acutely aware that when the final bell rings on each campus today, it won't just signal summer break for students or graduation time for the Class of 2011. In my district, it will signal the end of 142 staff members contributing to our educational community and enriching the lives of students. From central administration to campus administration to campus secretarial staff to instructional aides and classroom teachers, positions have been culled and eliminated through attrition or layoffs.

I know some of the faces who are not coming back because they are campus instructional technology staff with whom I've had the privilege to serve for many years. Some of them have been with the district for a number of years extending into the double digits. Their skill sets will be sorely missed by teachers and students alike. I met another face who is not coming back just today when I was out at a campus for a meeting. Gifted & Talented program facilitators have been cut too, taking away a resource from students and adding to the workload of teachers who kept their positions.

All of these cuts are due to the Texas budget crisis, which as of the last articles I read is going to result in a four billion dollar cut in public education spending over the next two years, with no additional funding for student growth. I have blogged extensively about these issues in the past few months.

There is disagreement on what caused the crisis - how much of it is due to the recession and how much due to a structural deficit caused by an under-performing business tax that was put into place in 2006 - but whatever the cause, the results are the same. Fewer educators and school district staff will be serving students across Texas in the coming school year. As of my latest documented count, over 12,000 public education employees will lose their positions when the final bells sound across Texas in the coming days. I do not know if that number will increase or decrease when the legislature finalizes the budget.

There has also been disagreement on how the crisis should be handled. Should the state Rainy Day Fund be used? If so, how much of it should be used? Does the school finance system need to be revamped again? Should ways be found to produce new revenue (i.e. raise taxes on someone somewhere)?

Regardless of opinions on these matters, students and their needs are rarely brought up by the decision makers as they state their positions. I think the people who should be the focus of this debate, the people who have the most to lose (or gain), are the ones who have been most ignored in the conversations. Students.

In a year when Texas is revamping its testing system to up the ante once again and clearly has expectations for continued improvement in its schools, when you fail to address adequate staffing needs, you are ultimately failing to address the needs of students.

Click the photo to enlarge and read the complete
message our librarians sent!
A bright spot at the end of this morale-challenging year took place in our technology department Wednesday. Our district librarians brought us some treats, and among those treats was the message you see at the right. We each received a copy. And when I say each, I mean everyone in the department, from the director to the instructional staff to the student information systems staff to the administrative assistant to the technicians.

What our librarians understand is that it takes everyone in our department to support their efforts and the efforts of the district. Instructional staff are important, but the supporting cast members play a vital role as well.

This analogy plays out over entire districts, too. Without the proper number of instructional staff, the primary mission of a school district - the education of children - is hindered as each instructional person has a finite amount of attention they can give to each student, even when their desire to give is infinite. Larger classes and fewer programs staffed ultimately means less opportunity for students.

The folks in favor of cutting spending no matter what the consequences have tried to make their position more palatable by trumpeting the fact that "only" 50% of Texas public school employees are classroom teachers. The implication being that if you aren't a classroom teacher you aren't valuable to a school district or a child's education. You are a burden on the system and a waste of taxpayer money. Never mind that the 50% statistic has held true for the last 20 years and no one seemed bothered by it before. Never mind that the 50% of employees who aren't classroom teachers directly impact the quality of student learning because they are the ones who feed children, drive them back and forth to school, keep the classrooms clean, fix water fountains and toilets, maintain and repair computers and network equipment, coordinate instructional programs, get messages to students from their parents, and professionally develop classroom teachers to keep them informed on the latest educational approaches. (On a related note, it is untrue that there is a 1:1 ratio of teachers to administrators in Texas public schools.)

If support staff are cut to keep more teachers in classrooms, then duties which belonged to those support staff may now fall back to classroom teachers. Duties such as one-on-one diagnostic testing or covering a class on your planning period to save substitute costs or having to research intervention strategies to help a student instead of having access to a specialist for consultation. Again, as teachers must assume more responsibility because of staff reductions, their time focusing on each child in their classroom is negatively impacted.

As I reflect on the 2010-2011 school year and wonder what the next school year and budget cycle holds, my biggest desire for the future is that educators, policy makers, and legislators will find ways to come together and truly discuss the issues based on actual facts. Truly understand what is at stake and what it takes to meet the needs of the diverse learners in our classrooms and the high expectations of our citizens.

Education should be apolitical; a strong public school system is in the best interest of our society and it should be a no-brainer that we need to prioritize ways to fully fund it. We have plenty of accountability built into state and federal law so the public knows how its money is being spent and what they get for it. Let's work together to continuously improve student achievement and graduate readiness instead of constantly pointing fingers at lawmakers or demanding better products from schools at a reduced price.

Photo by Flikr User goldberg
Used Under a Creative Commons License
Let's remember we are not trying to improve the manufacturing process for widgets and cogs. We're investing in our most precious natural resource - our children.