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Heartbreak or Transformation?

As Pennsylvania’s Levittown school system looks down the barrel of a 8% budget cut (“The Math of Heartbreak in Levittown,” New York Times, May 22, 2011”), school leaders see the inevitable slashing of the very programs that have led to the district’s recent rise in student performance. This means heartbreaking cuts in teaching staff and an end to bolstering struggling students through smaller class sizes and increased core instructional time. There is no silver bullet for Levittown and the thousands of other districts struggling to meet student needs in a down economy, but districts do not necessarily have to resign themselves to doing less with less. School districts such as Syracuse, Baltimore, and Charlotte are seizing this moment and changing the way they use resources in their bids to do more with less. Through several deliberate strategies, these school systems are attempting to meet budget gaps without divesting in their teachers and students.

Restructure compensation to manage the mix of teaching roles and skills and reward results. Rather than continue to fund automatic and escalating salaries for all teachers, Baltimore City Schools and the teacher’s union have agreed to base pay increases on meeting clearly defined performance standards, strong evaluations, and professional development requirements. By differentiating the salary structure, Baltimore can reallocate dollars toward supporting, retaining, and leveraging the skills of effective teachers. Although restructuring compensation is a long-term issue, reconfiguring expensive benefit packages can free dollars in the short-term to re-invest in building teaching effectiveness today –in such areas as coaching, collaborative planning and professional development.

Boy at computerRethink one-size-fits-all class size model for providing individual attention. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools have generated savings from raising class sizes in certain grades and subjects in order to fund individualized instruction and smaller group sizes during literacy and core instruction. See the resulting gains at two turnaround elementary schools in ERS’ School Turnaround Video.

Redirect special education spending to early intervention and targeted individual attention for all students. Syracuse City School District is attempting to redirect special education spending by changing the referral process, providing ongoing training in early intervention, replacing special education aides with certified special education teachers, and expanding dual certification of general education and special education teachers to allow flexible grouping and small group support of all students.

Use existing time better to meet student learning needs. Schools in Chicago, Boston, and Oakland use time flexibly and leverage technology and community resources in both core and non-core subjects and extra-curricular activities. The use of technology, online learning, and university partnerships can leverage teacher time, especially for upper grades and levels. In addition, community partnerships can engage students in co-curricular activities outside the school day so that school hours can be devoted to language arts, math, social studies, and science.

These districts have varied their approaches to best meet unique goals and issues, yet all are consistent in their willingness to rethink the use of resources. Instead of dismantling hard-won reforms in these tough times, school districts can instead dismantle the antiquated structures and legacies long-associated with school and district spending, pursuing not heartbreak but transformation.

Levittown is facing stark and sudden budget cuts and we do not know the details. We do know that finding new ways of doing things and organizing resources takes time and in some cases it takes new investment. There may be ways even in the short term for Levittown to make trade-offs that lessen the pain and begin moving toward new and potentially even better solutions.

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