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EDUCATION

More Teachers Only Part of the Answer

The government's seven-year plan to train new instructors as part of an effort to reduce class size in lower grades has been met with cautious optimism. Some educators worry that other needs will be ignored.

October 28, 1998|ANN L. KIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Educators are calling the federal government's seven-year plan to put 100,000 new teachers in the nation's classrooms a positive move, but not an automatic fix for public schools.

As part of the omnibus budget bill approved by Congress last week, the class size reduction initiative would distribute $1.2 billion to local school districts next year for teacher hiring and training. The Department of Education estimates that this will lead to the hiring of 30,000 new teachers in the 1999-2000 school year.

The money to be spent this fiscal year has been described by legislators as a down payment on an $12-billion plan to hire 100,000 teachers and bring the average size of first- through third-grade classrooms to 18 in the next seven years.

Although most educators agree that research clearly shows the benefits of reduced class sizes in the early grades, some worry that a rush to hire new teachers might only add to schools' woes.

"I really get concerned about just throwing bodies in classrooms without being certain that you have really well-qualified teachers," said Christopher Cross, president of the nonprofit Council for Basic Education, a Washington-based think tank. "You can't deal with the class size reduction issue in a vacuum. You have to look at how that's going to be part of a system of improving learning."

The budget agreement calls for 15% of the federal funds to be used on teacher training, but Cross remains skeptical. "It's easy to throw money at teacher training . . . [but] there has to be a good, comprehensive plan for it," he said.

In addition to finding qualified new teachers, schools must have the space for the extra classes, a requirement that may be difficult for financially strapped school districts to fulfill because Congress did not approve funding requested by the White House for school building repairs and construction.

"Now that there are these new teachers, we will need a place to put them," said Joel Packer, a lobbyist at the National Education Assn.

California has been facing these challenges--finding new teachers and more space--since the state began its own $1.5 billion class size reduction plan two years ago.

Strapped for classrooms, some schools have been forced to use libraries and partitioned gymnasiums for the classes created under the state's reduction plan.

And 25% of the teachers who have been newly hired to meet the increased demands have no teaching experience or credentials, said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who is heading an evaluation of California's class size initiative. "Is it better to have a class of 30 with a trained teacher or a class of 20 with an untrained teacher?" Kirst asked. "We don't know that yet."

Kirst said the data so far show that teachers who are granted emergency credentials, last-minute waivers that allow new hires to teach without the state's required level of training, have higher turnover rates than other teachers.

This fact underscores the need for providing sufficient training and support to new teachers, said Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction.

New teachers who are paired with more experienced mentors for advising sessions have had a high retention rate, Eastin said, while new teachers who are not part of this program are more likely to leave the profession.

Based on California's experience with implementing a class size reduction plan, Eastin advises other school districts to start preparing for the change right away. "Every local district needs to get busy and start planning today for what they're going to do next year," she said.

She warned that there are some hidden costs in hiring new teachers because they need to be trained, new classrooms must be found, and additional instructional materials must be purchased.

Educators note that hiring more elementary school teachers addresses only one area in which schools must be improved. More teacher training in subjects such as math and science, and improved salaries and working conditions for teachers are also needed, they said.

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