Smaller Class Sizes?

As I learned about the middle school restructuring, it seemed to me that some of the teaming and other MS features were cut back in order to keep class sizes down. I asked a friend, a middle school teacher in Ann Arbor: “What about smaller class sizes, I thought research indicated that smaller class sizes are better?”

My friend‚Äôs response was: ‚ÄúCertainly teachers want small class size, but at what price? If we were to lose three staff members and increase class size, we could continue to have block scheduling, teams, offer an additional elective, and the advisory period. With smaller class size we would keep three teachers but lose block scheduling, teams, and the elective and advisory periods. My own hunch is that we will eventually have larger classes anyway, and also lose all of the scheduling, teaming, and elective offerings that make a school a true ‘middle school. I don’t think administrators will ever radically increase class size because the AAPS would lose too many more customers (students).”

Please also see the related discussion in this forum on middle school restructuring.

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The Curriclum Menu

As decisions are being made about which parts of the curriculum to preserve, which to cut, and which new parts might be added, several factors should be part of our thinking about foreign language instruction:

  • The State of Michigan now requires two years of foreign language for high school graduation. This is new.
  • More universities are requiring (not merely recommending) foreign language for admission.
  • The business community is increasing seeking world language skills for global trade.
  • The new high school’s magnet programs will require world language skills.

If money weren’t an issue, we would happily offer a menu of fifteen or twenty different languages. But in reality, we must limit the menu of languages we offer. The burning question is this: which languages should we offer?

(I am a taxpayer, voter, teacher, and parent.)

- Andy Smith

 
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Increase class size or lose teachers?

We don’t know what will happen if the M.S. restructuring is voted down by the Union and Board this week. They may decide to simply cut the 40 positions from middle school without changing the structure of the program. I think this is liklier considering the changes coming at the high school level. That is no longer 3 teachers per grade level but 8 teachers per school.

Frankly, I’m not thrilled with this plan but I don’t think we know what the fall back position will be if it fails and I am not sure it is a good idea to cannabalize the younger teachers so the older teachers don’t have to change.

 
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Larger issues at stake

From everything that’s been said on this site and elsewhere about middle school restructuring, I’ve no question that everyone involved tried to do the best they could under the circumstances — that is, given that the main point of the restructuring was to find a way to cut operating costs. The financial pressures are real and cannot be ignored. But the comments by a few of our MS teachers in these two discussion topics raise some worries for me: that, by implementing this restructuring plan, we may be losing some important aspects of the MS curriculum that will be difficult to get back even if the money becomes available.

It so happens that I was asked to get involved in one of our elementary PTO’s program committees that focuses on the transition to middle school. Our main objective was to address, not the practical details of the transition (which were already handled quite well), but the social and emotional dimension.

In researching the subject, I discovered what most educators know already: that some years ago there was a distinct movement to abandon the traditional “junior high school” model and introduce reforms that were meant to structure middle schools more appropriately for the developmental level of the children they served. (See some useful references on our PTO’s site.)

A number of studies had found that the combination of early adolescence and the move to a departmentally-organized junior high school carried serious risks for the future academic performance of many students, especially girls, children from low-income families, and students who are young in their cohort. The shift from a small elementary classroom — with extensive contact with one teacher, and curriculums which tended to emphasize mastery over comparative rankings — to a much larger junior high — with more limited contact with teachers, the growing importance of the peer group rather than teachers as a point of reference, and a tendency to evaluate students by comparing them with one another — could really derail many promising students. Considerable evidence suggested that something happened in junior high that, for many students, undermined years of progress.

Thus the shift to “middle schools.” Among other things, “teaming” (in which a smaller group of students and teachers stay together), more extensive support systems, and changes in the way students were evaluated were all responses to the measured shortcomings of junior high schools.

Now we have several Ann Arbor teachers arguing in their posts here that some of the important aspects of these reforms will be lost under the current restructuring proposals, and that there may have been other alternatives — albeit leaving class sizes larger and cutting more staff. I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I wonder who will lead the charge to re-introduce the reforms when (or if) the schools are on more solid financial ground. Some changes are harder to undo than others. I worry that we may have chosen the wrong ones.

 
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Teaming is weak in Ann Arbor

Frankly, the teaming concept is very weak in Ann Arbor. In a school with true teaming, teachers dedicate one entire planning period to meet with their team every single day to discuss students performance and behaviors, to meet with parents and administrators as necessary and to plan interdisciplinary instruction. I don’t see that in Ann Arbor.

 
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Data - Teaming at Tappan

I’d be interested in knowing more about the data that tells us what is going on with respect to teaming at the Middle School level in Ann Arbor. For example, our child is having a wonderful year at Tappan and our experience is that teaming is well in place. The teachers clearly talk and coordinate their efforts (interesting, integrated projects, etc.) and know the students.

 
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Teaming in Ann Arbor

I would be so grateful as a parent, if the middle school teachers and administrators would discuss their experiences with the teaming and the advisory, along with their feelings about how the restructuring will effect the kids and the curriculum next year, here on this site. They could be posted anonymously. I feel in my gut that we are loosing valuable things through this restructuring and yet I also hear from some, that the changes will not effect things all that much. If this restructuring is a real step back for our kids and our teachers, I think we as parents, need to make it a goal in the future, to help bring back any programs and structures that have been lost. To do that we need to hear from as many middle school teachers and administrators, (those of you who I believe know best) what would be best. Especially next year when these changes are in effect. Thank you so much for sharing and for working with our kids each day. I can see as the mother of a sixth grader, how much this age group requires. It is a special time for our kids and one that relies increasingly on you, to guide our kids through their early adolescent years. My daughter is having a wonderful experience at Tappan this year and really looks up to her teachers and administrators. We as parents, need to help make the conditions right for you to work with our kids. I feel we owe you that.