Overview and Classroom Environment
Classroom environment, school closings, teacher certification, low test scores, school violence, large budget deficits, pension underfunding, government borrowing, teacher and other staff layoffs, and “No Child Left Behind’ are areas of concern in educating our children today. Some of these areas of education will be examined in this series, some more in depth than others, and Chicago’s public school system will be featured.
Other matters involving education that need to be addressed are charter schools, overspending/deficits, and fiscal responsibility. For the billions of dollars being spent on education today, the results should be better. It is time to get serious about education and make changes needed to educate our youth.
Of most importance to educating our children is the learning environment. That would encompass where learning takes place and the effectiveness of the teacher.
In order to teach, the classroom environment should be conducive to learning. Based on numerous reports from substitute teachers, that is not the case in many classrooms. Many classes are now taught by substitute teachers. You might say that, “A substitute teacher can only talk about the subject from a substitute’s perspective.” And you’d be correct, but some of the behavior reportedly witnessed by the substitute teachers is confirmed by permanent teachers too. The behavior is hard to believe. True, the substitute teacher may not get the cooperation of students as the permanent teacher does because the permanent teacher has resources not available to the substitute, namely being able to contact the parent when needed.
When children are in school, they are expected to behave in accordance with school policy. In Chicago, it is called the Student Code of Conduct (SCC). However, that code is not always implemented in dealing with student misbehavior. The SCC encompasses acts of impudence, cursing, bullying and fighting. Punishment should depend on the severity of the infraction. Student misbehavior should be handled immediately to be effective, with the perpetrator(s) identified by name. The punishment should be applied as the SCC rule indicates. Sometimes the problem is ignored. Whatever the reason, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it better. One wonders if all teachers know that the code of conduct exists
Teacher Absenteeism and School Closings
Chronic teacher absenteeism is a major problem for some schools. This may have a direct effect on educating our children. Some teachers know that their schools are going to be closed or turned around and call in sick frequently. When a school is turned around, that means that it has been targeted for closure. All school personnel including the principal, teachers, clerks, janitor and any other staff employed at the school are dismissed. They then have little motivation to come to work, since they know that their job is being eliminated. At certain schools, there have been as many as ten teachers absent on any given day and it wasn’t for attendance at a seminar for professional development. And just so that you understand the cost to taxpayers, for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, over $25M was spent on substitute teachers. There are more than 700 substitute teachers in Chicago and that does not account for the permanent teachers who have been reclassified as substitute teachers after their school has been turned around or closed. So when a teacher calls in sick, the school system is paying for two people, the substitute teacher and the teacher calling in sick. Is that fiscal responsibility? Does this provide for the educational continuity of a curriculum? Are the students being shortchanged?
Let’s look at school closings for now. When a school is closed it might be for poor performance or low utilization. By low utilization, that means if a school has the capacity for 300 students and only 150 students are enrolled, it is underutilized and may be scheduled for closure. Once the school is closed, the staff may reapply for their jobs. They are then tested. If they pass the test, they are rehired. Many, however, will not pass the test. The standards to pass these tests have been elevated. One taking the test should have a firm grasp of teaching principles and knowledge of the basic subject matter to be successful. By comparison, twenty years ago, there was a vast difference in the test in terms of level of difficulty. The test was so simple a fifth grader could have passed it. It goes without saying that the best teachers should be in the classroom. Maybe if more of them were teaching on a regular basis, our schools would improve.
Teacher qualifications is a major issue. Closing schools can accomplish getting rid of poor performing teachers. However you know about the saying of throwing the baby out with the bath water. That is what is happening here. If a teacher is not performing well, it is the responsibility of the principal to deal with the problem. If the principal is not living up to his or her responsibilities, the local school council or the highest level of management should step in and deal with that principal. But that is not happening because our schools would not be in such bad shape if everyone were owning up to their responsibilities. The buck is being passed up, down and sideways. The cost here can be measured in terms of student failures and payment for services not rendered.
To digress a bit, here in Chicago, the public schools are run by local school councils. Each school has one. The school council members are residents of a neighborhood who run for office and are elected. They hire the principal and have budgetary responsibilities. So, there are different levels of management here in the school system. This form of school oversight is somewhat new. The Chicago School Reform Act was enacted into law in 1988, and the first local school councils were elected a year later.
What about that teacher who is competent and doing everything possible to teach his/her students? If rated fairly by their principals, this would not be a moot point. Student test scores and performance are at issue. To be fair to all teachers, every facet of learning is not controlled by the teacher. Student home life and abilities are not under the control of the teacher. The socio-economic status of the child’s home life is a great factor in determining student success. Parents with greater education can surely do much more to ensuring their child’s success in school than parents with lesser education. The child’s innate abilities must also be taken into consideration. All children do not learn at the same rate. But the amount of homework a teacher assigns can help children’s progress. Instilling a good foundation from which children can learn is necessary. Encouraging and fostering a climate to ensure that learning can take place is essential. The teacher should have a good understanding of the subjects taught and the presentation skills necessary to convey them to the classroom. For someone who has been competently executing the job of teaching students to the best of his/her ability and having the skills necessary to do so should not be summarily dismissed when a school is closed.
Even for the best, teaching can be a complex undertaking. When children misbehave very badly, it can be daunting. Teachers today have more to deal with than simply student achievement. Help from their principals and administration should be forthcoming to aid in the learning process. They should neither feel intimidated nor coerced in getting their job done.
Ramifications of School Closings and Charter Schools
When schools are closed and not turned around, the students are transferred to another school. Sometimes this involves a much longer walk to school in the morning and going home after school. The students may also have to go through hostile territory to get to school. Other problems can result.
The reason for closing schools that performed poorly was to improve education. Many of those schools are replaced with charter schools. For those who don’t know, charter schools are independent public schools run by non-profit organizations that contract with the public schools to manage the education of its students. Charter schools have been here in Chicago for some time now. As a matter of fact, they have been here long enough to be evaluated. It has been reported that the charter schools perform no better than the neighborhood schools they replaced. There are few exceptions. No mention has been made of the cost for charter schools, but in addition to the cost for teachers, other staff and supplies, there is another cost that makes it attractive to the charter school organization to run them. If that cost exceeds the expense for the public school system to manage and run them, then what is the benefit of using them? If that is the case, then money is being wasted. In this economy, we cannot afford to be wasteful. Additionally, charter schools are governed by a plan with the Chicago Board of Education.
Getting back to the subject of closing schools, these changes must have an effect on both the teachers and students. As indicated before, for those teachers who know that their school is being closed, that has to affect their attitude towards their job. Why would you be interested in putting your best foot forward if you know that your job will only last until the end of the school year? Does an attitude like this one affect your teaching negatively? In an air of uncertainty, can those teachers do their best in the classroom? What happens to the children? Do the children in a poor performing schools exhibit even less progress when their school is targeted for closure? We really won’t know until some type of in depth study is done to determine whether this has an impact on student performance.
If students are experiencing such inconsistency in their classroom, it must affect their ability to learn.
Tradition and Non-traditional Schools
To understand the educational system here, it is necessary to talk about the two types of schools as they relate to the budget process in the system, which are tradition and non-traditional schools. Traditional schools represent 86% of the school budget. The budget is based on enrollment. They represent neighborhood schools, magnet schools, regional gifted schools, classical schools, special education schools and small schools. Responsibility for the budget is with the principals, teachers, and local school councils and is based on something called SIPAAA or School Improvement Plan for Advancing Academic Achievement.
Non-traditional schools are charter schools, performance schools and contract schools. These schools are all governed by a plan or agreement with the Chicago Board of Education. Performance schools are operated by CPS with CPS teachers and staff. Contract schools are managed by independent non-profits. Non-traditional school funding is based on enrollment also, but they are assigned a certain number of students and all operating costs are covered. Funding is not tied to positions. There is more flexibility in allocating budget dollars.
There are also additional resources for special education and English proficiency. Schools receive $400M to support childhood education, summer school, after school and desegregation programs.
Chicago is experiencing an alarming budget shortfall. This year it is approximately $1B. Last year it was $475M. One proposed remedy is to increase class size. It is presently about 25 students. It has been reported that the number may be increased to 37 students per class. If a teacher cannot produce good results with the present smaller class size, how will he or she cope with more? Are these scare tactics used to make the teachers more complacent with their present situation? Or, is this a serious option? Considering the misbehavior of some students, increasing class size could have a negative effect on teaching and learning.
Let’s take a closer look at the public schools in Chicago. The budget for this fiscal year is $5.328 billion. The breakdown of revenue sources is: 1.) 18% from federal Title 1 funds, 2.) 36% from state funding which is based on a formula involving students, household income levels and special needs, 3.) 37% from property taxes, 4.) 3% from personal property replacement taxes, which is corporate tax on business, 5.) and 3% from other taxes which come from sources such as school lunches. Almost half of school funding is provided by local sources or 43%. The state’s contribution is 36%. Illinois ranks 49th in its support to schools.
Now let’s look at how it’s spent. 71% of the $5.328B goes directly to schools, 4.4% to central office and 25% is for citywide purposes or discretionary funds. That last category sounds nebulous. What are citywide purposes? So, more than $1B is discretionary spending. Capital expenses are generated by issuing bonds, so that is not a part of the $5.328B. CPS has funded more than $5B in building improvements since 1995 and future need is great.
Maybe now is the time to mention the pension fund. Pension costs have risen dramatically since 2005 when it $200M. It is now at $400M. Apparently a great number of staff has retired since 2005. If that number continues to grow, pension costs will rise accordingly. Hopefully that is not the case. There has been talk about pension underfunding. To remedy the situation, the solution is teetering on having a two-tier system for employees. Anyone coming into the system would receive a pension plan not at the same level as current employees.
Everything examined relative to education seems to hone in on ancillary topics, like budget shortfalls. Someone in charge should be making a balanced budget. Why isn’t more attention given to the actual education of our children? Shouldn’t we talk about how to improve the reading skills of our children? Shouldn’t we focus more on basic math skills? Maybe a discussion on making recess mandatory is needed.
Many professionals come into substitute teaching to give back to their community. That may not be so easy to do. The behavior of the students can be truly unbelievable at times. Teaching can be a real challenge.
There are other municipalities in financial trouble due to overspending. A Utah legislator wants to eliminate the twelfth grade to save money. If done, that would save $60M. All state residents don’t agree. Cincinnati projects a $33M deficit by the year 2012. Toledo, OH projects over $30M in the upcoming year. Ann Arbor, MI projected a deficit of $20M for next year. Detroit has dire problems. After seven years of overspending, it was a candidate for bankruptcy. It has lost almost half of its students over that time period. But for this year, it has projected a slight surplus and intends to come out of deficit spending in three years. Last school year the deficit was $305.8M. St. Paul, MN projects a $25M deficit for this year. Los Angeles, CA projects a $640M deficit for this fiscal year. Chicago topped Los Angeles with a $900M deficit. Chicago is the third largest school district in the nation. Even though other school districts are having budget problems, Chicago has record overspending. If Detroit is successful this fiscal year, it will start the process of bringing itself out of fiscal distress. Chicago needs to do the same.
Unfortunately, all of these facts and figures can be boring. But education is important, important enough to warrant the examination.
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