Smaller Classes, Better Communication

By Leonie Haimson

23 September 02

As a parent and long-time advocate, I believe the two most important issues facing the city's schools are whether the new chancellor will continue the slow, but steady move toward smaller classes and what he will do to ensure that parents and other members of the community play a substantive role in determining the future direction of the education system.

Reducing class size is one of the few strategies that have proved to improve student achievement, particularly in urban areas. It is relatively simple in practice, but difficult politically because it means hiring more teachers, creating additional classrooms and spending more money.

Last week, the Independent Budget Office issued a report showing that the average class size in kindergarten through third grade classrooms has been reduced from 24.9 students in 1999 to 22.1 students in 2002. Yet only six districts out of 33 in the city have reached the target number of 20 students per class in these grades, and one fourth of students are still in classes of more than 25 youngsters.

Unfortunately, the state funding for this purpose has been frozen for the last two years, and so far, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not shown a willingness to invest the kind of city dollars required to bring class sizes down further. In fact, he has done the opposite. By threatening to cut an additional $378 million from the education budget, there is every indication that classes in our public schools -- still the largest in the state -- will grow even larger.

The second critical question involves what can be done to ensure that the voices of parents and other members of the community concerned about education be heard. The central Board of Education has been eliminated, and the community school boards are to expire at the end of the school year. Without a workable structure for public involvement, the school system will be even less accountable than before, with all power concentrated in the hands of two men -- the mayor and the chancellor -- neither of whom have ever had children in New York City public schools.

Most worrisome is the lack of any process to guarantee that decisions be openly discussed and are the result of solid research and evidence.

Certainly, the Board of Education was flawed, as were many of the community school boards. Their decision-making was too often political and unresponsive to parental concerns. But at least their existence and procedures allowed for the possibility of public engagement. Now, there is a real danger that the system will become even more arbitrary, secret and political than before.

One of the most serious problems of the former system was that there was no consistent multi-year planning -- few if any strategies for improvement were clearly laid out -- and there was little opportunity for genuine public discussion and debate. Instead, the administration implemented year-to-year changes that were often ill considered and the result of budget cuts, educational fads or political ideology on the part of the mayor or members of the Board of Education. Only rarely did these decisions reflect a genuine effort to look around the country and see what actually worked to improve student performance.

One way to ensure greater accountability is to improve transparency and public participation, as some federal agencies now do. For example, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posts on its web site not only drafts of its reports and action plans, but comments from experts and members of the general public. The agency then follows up by responding to these comments online.

Similarly, the chancellor's office should present a multi-year action plan for the public schools' improvement. A draft of the plan should be posted on the Internet, and comments could be solicited from parents, advocates and experts. The chancellor or his deputy would have to respond in writing to those concerns or recommendations and explain whether the plan will incorporate any of the suggested changes.

At the end of the school year, the chancellor should issue an annual report that discusses whether the action plan has been successfully implemented, and what impact, if any, it has had on student performance. Evidence should be offered from independent assessments as well as thorough in-house evaluations. This annual report will then set up a new round of planning for the following year, with the public enlisted again as partners in the process.

For too long, the public schools in this city have been mired in mediocrity, with parents and other members of the community essentially powerless to do anything about it. It is time that a system be established that will guarantee that our voices, as well as our ideas, are heard.

Leonie Haimson is chair of Class Size Matters, a group of parents throughout the five boroughs concerned with obtaining smaller classes in the New York City public schools.

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See also: "Helping Our Failing Schools" by Norm Fruchter

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