More funds for schools, and don't forget teachers


December 21, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

IN LAST WEEK'S column, the subject was how to fit more students into county school buildings. This week, it's about fitting more teachers into those schools.

The bottom line is that Carroll has too many regular academic classes with 30 or more pupils -- more than 600 classes, by the school administration's last count. In most cases, educators believe that learning is restricted when the classroom cap goes above 25.

That's a challenge to county public schools that won't be met simply by constructing more buildings and additions. Or by connecting classrooms to the Internet. It is a matter, and not an inexpensive one, of employing more teachers to educate our youngsters better.

Adding more classrooms with six new schools over six years will help, allowing for better use of the current cadre of teachers. But the county is already using nearly 120 portable trailers for classrooms, and the numbers of kids per classroom are still too high.

Note that we are not talking about average class sizes, a term that was used in the past and was frequently discredited.

The figure of 603 regular county school classes with 30 or more pupils is a more accurate reflection of the problem of teacher-pupil load. Because there are all kinds of exceptions to the "average" figure: large gym classes, limited science laboratory slots, small-group remedial and special education classes, to name just a few. So it's important also that the numbers focus on regular academic classes.

Most troubling is the listing of 84 elementary school classes with 30-plus pupils. Greater individual teaching attention in the earliest grades pays off in fewer problems and less cost in later years. There's false economy in cutting costs there.

It should be noted that the total number of larger classes in Carroll schools is lower than in the previous year, with eight teachers added to reduce class size. That's an improvement, but not a highly comforting one.

And according to the state's annual evaluation, Carroll continues to rank near the bottom of counties in terms of high pupil-teacher ratios: 23rd (of 24) this year, dropping from 22nd ranking last year. It's a pattern that the county has followed for years, repeatedly justified by the respectable showing that Carroll students have made in a variety of tests and evaluations.

Signs from MSPAP

But there are indications that this economy may be reaching its effective limits. Student scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests this year have mostly leveled off. Despite ranking second in the state, Carroll had no school that ranked "satisfactory" in all categories.

Since that 70 percent-satisfactory level is the goal for all schools on the MSPAP within three years, there's little reason for complacency. And the best direct way to improve public school performance is to aim for a lower pupil-to-teacher ratio that provides a greater opportunity for individual student improvement.

Granted, the quality of instruction depends on the skills of the teacher and administration, as well as the available support services and materials. But if you are looking for a single most important improvement, it would be the addition of more teachers to the school system. The Carroll system's reputation and selection process will assure hiring quality instructors.

While the county government seems committed to building needed new schools over the next few years, it has already been faulted by the school board for failing to include the full costs of staffing these additional facilities (and the effect of inflation on future costs).

Budget discussions must focus on this essential element of education, if Carroll schools are to continue to excel.

A reader phoned last week to say that I unfairly criticized Ed Wheatley of the planning commission for his sincere effort to improve the efficiency of existing classroom use by dividing the number of pupils by available capacity. Then Commissioner Donald I. Dell voiced support for major school boundary redistricting to promote that efficiency.

There's no intention to dismiss helpful ideas in this respect; the column noted the strong political opposition to redistricting, even though that will happen (and is happening) as new schools are opened. Since then, Carroll school officials have tried to explain the difficulties to policy-makers.

One stumbling block for everyone is the imprecision of future projections: system-wide population totals, enrollments at specific schools, costs of new school construction, etc.

That problem took center stage in last week's get-together of the County Commissioners, school board, planning commission and state school-funding staff. Planners said they have to come up with something in years-ahead calculations; funders said the projections aren't credible enough to commit serious money for construction. Yale Stenzler, head of the state's construction funding agency, left the meeting with a list of questions that need to be answered, for Carroll and for all Maryland school systems.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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