Doing advance work for smaller class size

Fulfilling a promise: Governor is right to want concrete plans for use of aid to hire additional teachers.

February 15, 1999

IN 1996, California began implementing a massive $1.5 billion plan to improve lagging student achievement by reducing class sizes statewide. Since then, more than 27 states, including Maryland, have picked up on the idea of smaller classes.

And why not? Such plans are wildly popular with parents. And some studies suggest students perform better -- particularly in classes with fewer than 20 students.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening doesn't have the money or mandate to initiate a California-scale plan. And in spite of campaign pledge to hire 1,100 teachers within four years, he did not fund them in his recent budget.

Instead, Governor Glendening said he would provide future aid to jurisdictions with targeted plans for using the teachers to improve reading and math skills.

Mr. Glendening was roundly -- and rightly -- criticized for failing to better articulate his campaign promise. But his insistence that school districts produce up-front plans for how they'll use new teachers makes sense.

Hasty edicts to cut class size can exacerbate education problems -- as some California school districts have learned the hard way. In their rush to hire the teachers needed to reduce class sizes, some California school districts were forced to lower their standards for incoming teachers. One study showed that of the 18,400 California teachers hired since 1996, 25 percent lacked full credentials.

And without space for new classrooms, some urban California districts have been forced to close libraries and day care centers to make room for more classes.

To avoid similar problems, Mr. Glendening is requiring school districts interested in receiving state funding for new teachers to produce plans describing how they will limit class size to 20 students per teacher in first- and second-grade reading and seventh-grade math.

Montgomery was the first school district in line with a plan that meets the governor's requirements. To his credit, Mr. Glendening has agreed to $1.7 million from his supplementary budget to hire 50 teachers in Montgomery County.

Next up is Howard County, which hopes to get an additional $1 million from the state, with a well-conceived plan to put additional teachers in primary grades at 17 schools, most with sizable enrollments of low-income students. In an attempt to help students early in high school, the plan also would reduce class sizes in all ninth-grade math and English classes. The plan awaits county board approval.

In Baltimore County, Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has amended his budget to include 50 additional teachers. And Anne Arundel and Carroll officials say they intend to ask for a state grant based on an existing class-size reduction plan.

Unfortunately, though, several school districts have not completed the planning required to obtain state funding for new teachers. Harford County schools probably won't request a grant now. A spokesman said factors such as available classrooms for additional teachers had to be considered. Baltimore City, surprised by the governor's demands, is still discussing whether to apply for grants.

Mr. Glendening should be held to his campaign promise to fund the hiring of additional teachers statewide. But he is justified in insisting that school districts show how these new teachers will enhance student achievement.

Put into language that school districts understand, this homework assignment is not optional.

Pub Date: 2/15/99

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