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Crowding Balto. Co.'s classrooms

The results of Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston's poor decision to cut teachers from high schools are now clear: A sharp drop in the number of classes available to students (including Advanced Placement courses), increasing class sizes and overtaxed facilities, such as chemistry labs with too many students for their lab stations. Mr. Hairston thought it more important to hire new administrators than to preserve teaching jobs, and the result is a lower quality education for students across the district.

Mr. Hairston is retiring at the end of the school year, and his replacement, Dallas Dance, has a chance to set things right. Mr. Dance has gotten the message from county teachers and parents that he needs to do a better job of communicating with them than Mr. Hairston did and that one of his first orders of business must be a comprehensive plan for updating and expanding school facilities. He should add this issue to his list.

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Baltimore County lost nearly 200 high school teachers last year as a result of Mr. Hairston's decision to plug a $12 million hole in the school budget by increasing class sizes and reassigning hundreds of high school teachers to vacant positions in middle schools instead. At the time, Mr. Hairston insisted the reductions were necessary to give all school system employees promised salary increases and to cover higher costs in other areas, including $1.9 million in salaries for newly hired administrative and support personnel.

We questioned then whether the school system had its priorities straight by eliminating teaching positions while at the same time hiring pricey administrative staff. The money spent on new headquarters personnel could have been used to keep dozens of high school science, math and foreign language instructors in their classrooms, and the policy flew in the face of a national trend toward trimming central staff in order to allocate more resources to individual schools. Cutting teaching positions and increasing class sizes should have been the remedy of last resort.

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Now high schools across the county are feeling the pain. As The Sun's Liz Bowie reported on Sunday, average class sizes have risen, in some cases substantially, leaving teachers less time to devote to individual students and students less able to participate in classroom discussions and activities. At some high schools as many as a third of the classes now have enrollments of more than 30 students, well above what is considered optimal, and some 700 classes have been dropped from the rolls.

Moreover, it appears that some of the biggest increases in class size have occurred in the county's highest-performing schools, sparking concerns among parents that the quality of instruction may be compromised. Many of the classes that have been dropped are Advanced Placement courses that allow students to earn extra college credit in math, science and foreign languages, but physical education, art and music classes have grown as well. Bigger classes make it more difficult for teachers to grade papers and tests promptly, or give students quick feedback when they turn in assignments.

The Sun's analysis showed that class sizes on average increased the least at the county's lowest-performing schools, where many of the students come from low-income families. Schools such as Woodlawn and Dundalk, for example, lost fewer teachers per student than did Dulaney or Towson high schools. Most educators believe smaller classes are particularly important for students in schools that are struggling, and even before the reductions those schools had smaller teacher-to-student ratios than their higher-performing peers. But the disparity in staffing levels between the two widened even further after last year's cuts. While it is admirable that the system protected its most challenged schools from the teacher cuts, we question whether the reductions were truly necessary in the first place.

Until more data is available about county students' performance on Maryland High School Assessments and other standardized exams, we won't know precisely what effect this year's larger class sizes had on how well students were able to learn, but it surely didn't help. Mr. Dance is going to have to determine whether increased class sizes are damaging the county's efforts to improve the quality of instruction for all students, and he could start by launching a top-to-bottom review of his predecessor's staffing and spending priorities and their effect on student achievement. Quality public education has largely been one of Baltimore County's greatest attractions. Mr. Dance needs to reassure teachers, parents and students that it will remain so.

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