Larger class sizes are not the answer to budget cuts.
The crisis in education we are facing cannot be solved by increasing class size as a short-term budget fix. The current class sizes are already too large. We can lower the teacher/student ratios without increasing cost by getting our retired teachers to come back into the system on a part-time basis.
There are two underlying assumptions here. First, there will probably be no substantial additional funding available for education in the foreseeable future. With the end of the stimulus dollars the outlook for local and state budgets appears to be pretty bleak. Second, with a population skewing ever older, it is incumbent on our society to devise methods for keeping people in the work force longer. We must tap into our increasing life spans to increase our productivity as a nation, and we must increase our overall productivity if we are going to pull ourselves out of this current economic situation.
One place that is ideal for this is education.
Here’s the way it is in Texas. Retired teachers can work up to half time without losing any of their retirement benefits. Even though someone might not be able to hold up under a full work load anymore, four hours a day or two eight hour days a week would keep a person active and involved, giving the educational system the benefit of their experience and expertise. With a standard school year of 187 working days this would mean that a retiree could work the equivalent of 93 days without losing any benefits.
They certainly wouldn’t be doing it just for the money though. Part time, certified teachers in the Austin ISD make $80 per day with the total cost to the district being $86 including payroll taxes. The total cost per day for the average, full-time salaried teacher in the Austin ISD, including benefits, is $293. Therefore, we could hire 3.4 part-time retired teachers for the same cost as one full-time teacher.
As the teacher/student ratio in the district is about one teacher to eighteen students in grades K through 3, and we can hire the equivalent of three part-time retired teachers for the same amount as a full-time teacher. We could achieve a one to six teacher/student ratio, at no additional cost to the district, by getting retirees to come back into the system.
I specifically mention grades K-3 because I consider this to be the most critical area of need. In my management classes at the University of Texas, decades ago, we studied a business concept called the “span of control.” This basically is the number of people that one person can manage effectively if those people need constant instruction and supervision. At that time we were taught that one person could not effectively manage more than six people. To equate this management ratio to the educational process is not a stretch at all, and I can think of no more intensive a management situation than in grades K-3. I believe that we would improve our ultimate product by increasing our teaching staff at these most formative and most receptive grade levels.
Many educational sociologists believe that the most critical learning period is from ages 2 to 5 and that the parents’ responsibilities here are paramount. Given our high level of irresponsible parenting this means that many kids coming into kindergarten are already in a remedial situation. Therefore, it is crucial for us to be ready to determine who needs to play catch-up and have the resources available to do it quickly. In the past grandparents played a big role in parenting and education, and I think it is a good sociological fit to give these youngest students an older role model to be a grandmother or grandfather to them.
Before getting to the problems inherent in this proposal, let me run down some general observations and opinions about the current state of education and what I see as the positive benefits of reducing class size at this level.
In the Austin ISD a high school was finally forced to close after failing to meet state-mandated standards of performance for several years in a row. A few of the teachers from that high school wrote letters to the op-ed page in the Austin American Statesman in which they lamented the poor educational character of the students they were trying to teach, citing a high truancy rate and the fact that most of those who did manage to show up did not really come to learn and were constantly disruptive. Where does this breakdown begin? Is it a hormonal thing? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the district’s fault?
Whenever, wherever, or however we lose them, we need to make sure that the kids get off to a good start by building a solid educational foundation. We need to pump as much knowledge into them as we can when they are of a receptive age and then hope to reap long-range benefits. Striving for long-range results is not something we do much any more as a nation, as even our governmental entities have begun to operate with a short-run corporate mentality.
So I believe that if we cut down the class size we will be able to keep the kids more focused, ultimately improving their performance and appreciation for education. I believe this concept would work all the way through grade 12. It would certainly be a long-range dream to see this theory, for the reduction of class size, permeate the entire system through grade 12.
The main problem in implementing this plan is one of sheer numbers. It will take six part-time teachers for each eighteen-student class to do this. Are that many available? Can we do this without appreciably increasing our administrative costs? Would we have enough classroom space?
I believe the concept is a sound one. We must, as a community, take more control over our educational system. For too long we have seen our politicians pay lip service to education during the election cycle only to do nothing once in office, or do something that serves only to increase a teacher’s administrative burden.
This is something we can do now. We don’t have to wait for legislative mandate. We don’t have to wait for funding. It should be patently obvious by now that our elected officials are not up to the task, and if you are waiting on them for a solution you are “waiting for Godot.” Our school boards, district superintendents, administrators, teachers, and retired teacher organizations must partner to begin design, testing, and implementation. Even if only one class can be done at first we must begin the process and begin getting feedback.
With the widespread losses in 401(k)’s and the crisis looming in Social Security, we need to begin planning for a different future. As Yogi Berra so gracefully phrased it, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And let’s face it, retirement just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a manageable class size and a shorter workday? With the boomers now hitting retirement age, there will be increasing numbers available for a while to come. Also available might be those who trained to be teachers but dropped out of the educational system to follow other career paths or to raise a family. Perhaps programs could be started to integrate retirees from other professions. Couple this with an increasingly productive life span and I think we’ve got a viable plan.
There are simply too many positive aspects in this plan both to the educational system and to society as a whole for us to not begin its implementation in some form or other. This moment in history can be the beginning of a renaissance for our society and our nation but it is up to us to seize the standard.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.