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Lynch, school administrators talk class sizes

November 9, 2011

Update 11/9/11 4:17 PM: I may not be correct in my assertion below that an override next year would have to be 2/3 split between municipal services and schools. I am going to find out more info and will change it if I find that is incorrect.

At my request, Superintendent Lincoln Lynch read my previous article about class sizes and I asked him whether he wanted to respond to it (I showed it to him before its publication in the Times.) He and Assistant Superintendent Jean Kenney and School Committee Vice Chair Nancy Gallivan took a look and offered an extensive response that is posted below (I didn’t expect them to come up with such a long response, but it’s fine with me.)

I haven’t changed my mind on the issue, but it sounds like Lynch and I agree fundamentally on some important points. I appreciate his willingness to respond to the article I wrote.

Superintendent Lynch and others in school administration have also offered to meet with me sometime soon to discuss the override at length, as anyone who reads this blog or my column can clearly tell that I have some questions/concerns and I am interested in sharing some of my ideas and thoughts as a 12-year Walpole public school student.

As I have stated before, I am more concerned about the municipal side of this override, in that the municipal budget has a lot of opportunities for savings in my opinion and I won’t support an override if it includes too much more for municipal services (which it will have to, pursuant to the town/schools 2/3 split, unfortunately.)

The below is the School Department’s response (written by Lynch with “significant contributions” from Kenney and Gallivan) to my class size article (I edited any spelling/grammar mistakes):

“Personally, I would never recommend an override without working with leadership to turn over every rock for efficiencies (over $1 million), working with the unions to agree on concessions (over $1 million) and working with the School Committee to make significant cuts (over $1 million). Secondly, if you compare per pupil expenditures locally, we are near the bottom. Natick spends only $1,000 per pupil more than Walpole. But, that $1,000 translates to $4 million more in buying power when calculated out by our 4,000 students.

The override is not only about class sizes; it is primarily about the impact on programs and the resources we offer to students. The number of programs that the Walpole Public Schools have lost over the last ten years is significant and damaging to our students. You sound like you believe that we ‘are trying to drive class sizes down.’ We are trying to preserve manageable class sizes (under 30) that enable excellent teachers to achieve what they and their students are able. We are also trying to attract and retain excellent professional teachers who may not wish to continue in Walpole with class sizes in excess of 30.

As far as comparing us to Korea and China, consider the book by Yong Zhao, “Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.” [this part edited out because he made personal reference to me] This book refutes many of the assertions that Asian education is superior to American education. [One] might consider speaking with [Johnson Middle School Principal] Sandy Esmond who observed Chinese education first hand.

I would agree with the premise that it is clear that teacher quality is a high contributor to student success. We have done a lot to concentrate on evaluation, training, supervision and support to improve the quality of teaching. Teachers work collectively to evaluate data that can determine when and where students are having difficulty and then work together to share strategies that may help students to get beyond their confusion. Therefore, I agree with your premise that good educators constantly work to improve teacher quality and that Walpole has been doing this as inexpensively as possible, but it is only one very important component.

Yes, class size is the easiest one to capture in a headline and the one that grabs parents’ attention when they are on the short end of that stick. But it is also a real problem that Walpole teachers have compared to many other local towns. Large class sizes are not always a negative, but often it is, especially when the teacher is held to high standards (as addressed in the previous point). Some problems that we tend to hear too often when class sizes get large are:

  • Math is a cumulative subject and if you have a question at the beginning or middle of a concept, your foundation is weak at best. But when there are close to 30 kids in a class, it is very difficult to both complete the entire explanation and get to everyone’s questions. This has led to way too many students needing a tutor and to students dropping down to the easier level.
  • Quality learning in English and Social Studies relies on many opportunities for written and oral presentations, and for strong constructive criticism of both in order to improve student performance. When class sizes gets too large, sometime fewer assignments are given and quality feedback does happen or the alternative is that a challenging number of assignments are given and the teacher gives feedback on some, but not all assignments.
  • In the younger grades, when children are learning to read and their attention spans are not fully developed, it is not unusual for individual kids to get distracted and need to hear the directions or the concept a second time. It does not mean that the student cannot learn this, just that she/he needs a second chance. In large classes, the teacher will answer the first few questions, but often it is the quiet patient kid who feels the pressure to let the teacher continue even though she/he is still confused. As this happens again, the student begins to lose confidence.

We feel a need to try to keep the education that Walpole students receive competitive with those in nearby Massachusetts towns, so that our students are able to compete in their post-high school years. In the early budgeting forecast, it appears that without an additional revenue source next year, the school department will be making further lay-offs. It would be oversimplifying [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan’s message to boil it down to the point where we felt that the only important consideration should be setting high standards for teachers. We believe that is important and have acted upon that belief, but class sizes still have an impact on the quality of a student’s education. Walpole has consistently had larger class sizes than other Massachusetts towns and as you have noted, there have been many successes. But in recent years, we have begun to see more and more symptoms of difficulties. It has been our practice to explain our thinking at public meetings and budget hearings. That is how the open meeting process should work. Every spring, the School Committee is expected to defend and validate our budget. Certain sound bites make it into newspaper reports, and it is often oversimplified, given the amount of deliberation involved. But it has been almost 5 years since the School Committee has suggested the need to consider an override. This coming year, in our estimation, it would be unwise to push Walpole’s class sizes up further and expect to get similar results. That is not to say that we are ignoring the message that teacher quality is equally important, if not more so. In our estimation, both are important considerations and both will be negatively affected.”

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