Monday, February 12, 2007

Class Size Matters

To judge by the ads on cable television, the main dispute in contract talks between the Boston School Committee and the Boston Teachers Union is over class size. The School Committee does want to allow for an increase in class size in more classrooms. But the Boston Municipal Research Bureau says the contract provision has recently been revised so that the change would only be allowed in 150 classrooms—out of more than 13,000. The ads say the contract provision would “cram more students into every classroom”—a statement the Research Bureau calls “highly exaggerated.” The Bureau says the provision allows the School Dept. to be cost effective in a limited number of cases when the alternative would be to pay for adding another classroom.

The class size provision might also reflect the increasing pressure on enrollment by trimming the number of students in under-performing schools. There is agreement on both sides to increase pay for teachers in those schools, while requiring a longer day. More difficult to settle is how much more flexibility in those schools administrators will have to bring in teachers or nudge them out. Superintendent Michael Contompasis wants to have that increased flexibility in as many as 20 under-performing schools. Does the flexibility, as BTU President Richard Stutman says, mean more teachers who simply “go along” with administrators, or does it mean more teachers who perform better and make everyone look good?

How good the teachers look also depends on their performance evaluations. The School Committee wants to make changes in the evaluation mechanism. Can these changes affect performance in ways that narrow the achievement gaps? Along with providing accountability for test scores, could the mechanism address other concerns raised by parents and students: for example, making schools seem more welcoming to the community, or making what’s taught seem more relevant to the world of students, more engaging? On the other hand, teachers would probably have some reason to be concerned about the potential in evaluations for blame-shifting. As the formula for better performance requires more collaboration between teachers and people of other specialties, even from other agencies, accountability can become more tricky.

Also in dispute in the contract talks is how much teachers would contribute to their health insurance. The city wants to increase that contribution by its employees from 10% to 15%, noting that the cost of premiums for employees in the schools has more than doubled since 2001. Officials say, even with the higher contribution, teachers would still do better than many other employees in the public sector, not to mention the private sector. But going up another 5% is also the kind of concession that doesn’t come easily. For quite a while, the Research Bureau has been pushing for another way to rein in the cost of health coverage—through state legislation that would make it easier for local communities to change insurers—and possibly exert more leverage in the health care market.

A debate on the contract between BTU President Richard Stutman and Boston School Superintendent Michael Contompasis has been scheduled for Tuesday, February 13, 6 p.m., at the Grover Cleveland School, 11 Charles Street, Dorchester (across from Fields Corner Station).

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At the School Committee meeting February 7, the superintendent presented budget recommendations, with an overall increase in the next fiscal year of 1.7%. Among the recommendations:

· $4.1 million for 23 more kindergarten classrooms, serving 500 4 year-olds
· $2 million for English Language Learners, covering staff, professional development, materials, and a summer enrichment program
· Creating more K-8 schools (money to continue conversion at 3 schools and begin at 4 others)
· Eight more family and community outreach coordinators (an increase to a total of 25 full-time positions)