Teachers union: Prismatic Systems Inc. report off base
Published 3:30 pm, Tuesday, February 22, 2011
This commentary was submitted by the Fairfield Education Association, the bargaining unit for the town's public-school teachers. It has about 975 members.
The Fairfield Education Association appreciates and shares the concerns of all members of the Fairfield community when it comes to reducing waste and operating more efficiently within the education system.
Like the superintendent and the Board of Education, we are in the process of doing a detailed analysis of an independent-audit report and plan to issue a response shortly after the winter break. That said, we want to emphasize that we believe many aspects of the Prismatic Systems Inc. report are misleading and inaccurate -- especially the idea that the elimination of the house system could save $1.6 million.
Even if one could assume that Prismatic's proposed organizational structure could accommodate all the work that needs to be done -- which it does not -- the proposal does not include the extra cost associated with hiring department heads to replace the housemasters.
The proposal also doesn't recognize the fact that the house secretaries support not only the administrative personnel in the houses, but they also support the 400 students, their families and teachers in the houses. The idea that these house secretarial positions would become unnecessary if the housemaster positions didn't exist anymore is just not true. In fact, the students, their families and the teachers would still be there and still need support.
We also would like to caution the people of Fairfield about accepting the comparisons Prismatic made. The town has spent decades making the Fairfield Public Schools among the best in the country. The strength of the schools is one factor that makes the town so desirable to live in and a desirable town in which to move. Using national-personnel averages or even the averages of similar size towns to Fairfield is like comparing apples to oranges. As far as quality of education is concerned, the Fairfield Public Schools compares favorably to towns such as Westport, Wilton, Weston, Darien, New Canaan and Ridgefield. Compared to those districts, our staffing ratios are very much in line.
Furthermore, Prismatic grossly mischaracterized the language-arts writing conferences as tutoring sessions. One of the fundamental skills we hope all high school students can master during their high school years is the ability to write. It's so important that the skill is heavily tested in the CAPT exam, SAT and ACT exams, AP English Literature and Composition exam and the AP Language and Composition exam. It is a key skill that students must demonstrate during the college application process.
Teaching students to write well is a two-part process: using class time to teach the mechanics and fundamentals of writing, then using writing conferences to help students refine their work and find their own style and voice.
Eliminating the writing conferences is tantamount to giving students half of an education in writing. It is for this reason that some of the finest public schools in Fairfield County -- such as Staples High School in Westport and Ridgefield High School -- join Fairfield in including writing conferences in their language arts curriculum. Even the National Writing Project supports individualized writing conferences as the best practice in writing instruction.
Financially, the elimination of writing conferences would save the district only about $285,000. Contractually, the maximum number of students a language arts teacher can have on his or her roster is 105. Language arts teachers now have a per-class average of 23 students, according to the Prismatic's audit. Eliminating writing conferences would necessitate a drop in class sizes from 23 students to 21 because of the district's contractual obligations. It would seem that $285,000 districtwide is a small price to pay to teach students to write properly.
Lastly, while the curriculum leaders are not members of the Fairfield Education Association, they have primary responsibility for determining what students will learn and how we will know if they've learned it. Curriculum and assessment transcend buildings and grade levels, and that's why these personnel are central office employees. It's also why building-specific personnel such as housemasters, department chairs and even principals are ill suited to take primary responsibility for districtwide curriculum and assessment in a large school district like Fairfield.
The bottom line is that eliminating the curriculum leader positions can't be accomplished without a fundamental restructuring of the entire way the district operates, and such a drastic change could certainly not happen in such a short time as a year.
Costs must be controlled in the education system for the sake of all involved. Our hope is that Fairfield residents understand that the town's education professionals on their side on this issue.
They have done and will continue to do everything possible to keep costs down without materially degrading the quality of education for Fairfield's youth.
It's always easy to cut budgets. It takes careful analysis, planning and consideration to cut budgets while maintaining quality.