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Kathleen Cashin has been a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent in New York City in high-needs districts. She is currently a member of the New York State Board of Regents, which sets policy for the state.
In this article, which appeared in the New York Daily News, she explains her hope that school district will use their new money to invest in most successful school reform that works: reduced class size. (Mayor de Blasio, by contrast, says he wants to pour $500 million of the city’s windfall into more testing and tutoring.)
In 1999, when I was superintendent of the city’s District 23 in Ocean Hill Brownsville, fourth graders had to take a multi-faceted standardized state test for the first time, which included reading, writing and listening. The first thing I did was to reduce class size as much as possible.
The results were astounding. Not only were there significant gains in test scores the following year, but I noticed a stunning development: Students were able to forge closer relationships with their teachers, and their teachers had their morale lifted because no longer did they have an overwhelming number of students with high needs to address.
Most disciplinary problems vanished overnight, even among students who were most prone to act up. Teachers were now keeping their doors open, and welcoming administrators and other teachers to visit, because their classes were running smoothly, and it was evident how much learning was going on. They were no longer fearful that someone would notice chaotic classrooms and blame it on them. They began to enthusiastically collaborate with each other, and this collaboration helped to further sharpen their skills and fostered a strong sense of professionalism.
In 2003, I was appointed Superintendent of Region Five, encompassing Districts 19 and 23 in Brooklyn and District 27 in Queens, including some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Aided by a state program that helped fund class size reduction, I lowered class sizes in as many schools as I could. Over the next three years, our elementary and middle schools achieved the greatest test score gains of any region in the city.
It was a revelation. And now for the first time, NYC has the opportunity to transform all our schools and classrooms in a similar fashion.
New York City will receive about $7 billion from the federal government over the next three years to help our schools reopen to in-person learning safely, with additional support students will need to recover from more than a year of disrupted learning and the losses that so many suffered due to the pandemic. President Biden has also proposed to more than double Title I funding, which could mean an additional $700 million annually to the city’s schools.
In addition, after many years of reneging on their promise, the state has now pledged to provide the city with full Foundation Aid, starting at $530 million and increasing over three years to about $1.3 billion in annual funding. This is the result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, in which the excessive class sizes in our schools were central to the judgment of the state’s highest court that students were deprived of an equitable opportunity to learn. In 2003, the New York Court of Appeals wrote: “[T]ens of thousands of students are placed in overcrowded classrooms…and provided with inadequate facilities and equipment. The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.”
Unfortunately, class sizes have only increased since then, particularly in the early grades. More than 300,000 students were in classes of 30 or more last year, with average class sizes 15% to 30% larger than those in the rest of the state.
Research shows that while all children benefit from smaller classes, those who make the greatest gainsare students of color, those who are economically disadvantaged, English Language Learners and those with special needs. These students collectively make up the majority of students in the NYC public schools.
The City Council has now proposed that $250 millionbe spent on a targeted program to lower class size next year. This is a good beginning. I hope Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Meisha Porter will enthusiastically accept this proposal, so that class size reduction can begin to be phased citywide over the next three to four years.
We have a crisis in teaching, with high teacher attrition rates, particularly in those schools with the most disadvantaged students. This emanates in part from these teachers having class sizes too large. Educators are not being provided with the opportunity they need to succeed in their jobs.
It’s simply too difficult for one person to handle 30 young students and know all their abilities and disabilities, no less be able to address them effectively. But if you have 20 students or fewer, and in the upper grades 25 or fewer, suddenly what was impossible before becomes possible.
Poverty drains everyone it comes in contact with. But when children are provided the chance to have the close personal attention and connection with their teachers, made possible by a small class, it can change their lives. We believe they deserve that chance.
Cashin represents the borough of Brooklyn on the state Board of Regents.