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From the Field: Budget Cuts Are Ruining the Classroom

Budget cuts. We’ve been feeling the effects of them for a while, now, haven’t we? At first, we waited patiently, even optimistically. We watched supplies dwindle, books deteriorate, computers fall apart.... We took pay freezes, pay cuts, took a second or a third job, did our best to dodge layoffs.... As an educator, often, your first reaction to such an unsupportive academic environment is to double-down your efforts, if only out of pure spite against the system:  You start running free after-school programs to keep the arts alive; you take pride in your ability to creatively manage a classroom with half the resources; you show the world the indomitable spirit of your students.... Unfortunately, these practices don’t tend to be sustainable. Everyone has a breaking point. And teachers in classrooms across the nation have reached it.

New public education cuts are looming over the heads of our school districts. From teacher training programs, to countless student support systems (including many targeting high-need communities), at present, nothing is safe. Today, Education World wants to take a step back and really consider the tangible consequences we undertake when we cut education. Staring at numbers from a desk at the capitol building just doesn’t capture the experience of the victims of these sorts of deficits, year after year. At some point we have to ask ourselves: What will our school systems look like if we continue down this path?

Answer 1: Your students will not be armed with the skills and resources they need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.

When budget cuts hit school systems, it tends to start with supplies and resources, in an effort to keep the educators themselves. Many school systems will begin trimming paper use, general student supplies, textbook budgets, technology maintenance, and any and all plans for expansion into the next generation of educational practices. At face value, it might seem trivial. And it would be, if we did not live in a world where advances in technology and the expectations placed upon the up-and-coming workforce were not accelerating at such an extreme pace. The truth is, the modern educator is preparing students for a work world that does not exist yet. Being at the forefront of these changes is not a luxury for our students. It is a necessity of survival. So when students are lacking in the latest software technology, challenging and updated texts, and the soft skills to tackle them both, we are quite simply setting them up for failure.

Large-scale research of school districts, state budgets, and national trends can sometimes mask the actual impact of the these numbers. To put cuts into a more tangible perspective, teen newspaper LA Youth once did an investigational piece, surveying over 1,850 students about how such cuts affect the classroom itself. Over the course of two years, 57% of those surveyed had copied information from an overhead because there wasn’t enough paper in the school to make copies for everyone. Fifty-two percent had seen scenarios where the school did not have enough working computers. Fifty-one percent had to share textbooks because there were not enough for everyone. It’s anecdotal, but certainly mirrors the struggles districts are seeing across the country.

“Well, when I was growing up, we didn’t have much for resources—let alone all of this expensive technology—and we still learned just fine.…” Surely. Your teachers were preparing you for the workforce world you were graduating into. And yet, the world has changed immensely in even the past 20 years. Workplace communication and collaboration occurs digitally in the modern world: from organizational apps to shared online workspaces to video conferencing. And all of these common workday tasks have a specific set of skills attached to them that need to be practiced to nurture proficiency. Today, the Framework for 21st Century Learning—standards developed by teachers, researchers, and perhaps most importantly, employers—has become a necessary resource for schools wishing to prepare their students for the job market. In other words, today’s employers have identified exactly what they need from their future employees, and schools are prepared to teach these skills. But without the tools (hardware, software, texts) to practice, our students will not be prepared to be effective in that workforce.

Answer 2: Your favorite teachers are being laid off. The rest are overwhelmed by absurd class sizes.

As much as schools would love to simply stop using paper clips and save enough money to sustain their practices, unsurprisingly, the large cuts being made across the board are consistently leading to pay freezes and, in most cases, layoffs. When it comes down to the process of layoffs, each district is certainly different. However, they tend to follow the same trends: First, cut anything that is not a part of the “core curriculum” (arts, music, vocational ed., teaching assistants). Then, seniority. No matter how fantastic your student’s teacher might be, that “fantasticness” will not save them their job. Even the “teacher of the year” may be given a quick and unceremonious exit.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the real challenge belongs to those that remain. When your child’s school loses teachers, it doesn’t lose students. This means increases in class sizes. In some cases, significant increases. Phoenix science teacher Melissa Hagen shared with the National Education Association the realities of these increases, as layoffs have increased her classes shot up from 22 to 41: “That assumes that all teachers are here or we have a sub,” Hagen notes, “If not, I could have around 55 kids in my class.” Any teacher will tell you that 55 students is not manageable—perhaps one of the reasons many of us have chosen not to have 55 children in our personal lives.

“They can handle it. We all have hard jobs. That’s what they’re paid for.” Putting this number into perspective, understand that larger class sizes are going to lead to more discipline issues. A percentage of those students are struggling with learning disabilities. A percentage of those students are struggling with mental illness. Many of these students need individual accommodations like extra time, being read to, or needing periodic “time-outs.” A percentage of those students did not sleep well last night, did not eat breakfast, forgot to read last night, need help with a skill, or are going through a social emergency. All 55 of those students likely represent perhaps 5 to 20 different reading levels and need to be differentiated for every assignment. Class gets interrupted, needs get unmet, there are too many questions to answer, too much differentiation, too many distractions.... And even if your student is one of the lucky ones that do not fall into many of the categories listed above, your on-grade-level, focused, hard-working, and polite student will be left wanting and unchallenged in the classroom, as the teacher spends the hour putting out fires and attempting to meet both the legal and the urgent, immediate demands of the class.

Answer 3: Your students are not getting as much support as they could.

There’s another element to the amount of support your student deserves when it comes to educational budget cuts. Whether or not you consider your child to be a “struggling student”, cuts to programs for these students are impacting their educational potential. The “Title I” program on the chopping block pays for services for low-income students. The LA Times suggests the proposed “budget would get rid of a $190-million literacy program, a $2.3-billion program meant to enrich instruction and the $1.2-billion 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which provides after-school options for students at disadvantaged schools. It also cuts Special Olympics education programs, a move an administration official called a tough but necessary trade-off.” The entire list of potential support program cuts for students is pretty staggering.

But cutting to the chase, here’s what it means in the classroom: if your student can’t do it on their own, they’ll fall through the cracks. This sort of thinking flies in the face of everything we know about how students learn. Not everyone learns at the same pace in every content area. Not everyone progresses developmentally at the same pace. And yes, variables like low-income households, trauma, ability, and disability—all of which are completely out of the control of our students—do indeed impact the way kids learn. Nonetheless, each of these students deserves a good, supportive educational environment, and many of them benefit greatly from specialized support.

And even if you believe in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth, you still have to face the fact that if struggling students don’t get the support they need in the classroom, the classroom as a community cannot thrive. As mentioned above, a teacher without a school social worker, special education aid, paraprofessional, or a reading specialist will never have enough time to give your student the education they deserve. They will try. They will lose sleep in the process of making up for the deficits of the district, but at the end of that road is a completely unnecessary burnout.

“Why do we suddenly need a billion different supports in the classroom? Can’t kids do it themselves? We did….” Some of you did. With the emergence of new revelations in brain science and pedagogy, we have the opportunity to engage all students in the classroom in the process of learning in ways that we never have before. You might have succeeded in the school environment you were raised in. But if you recall, not everyone did. Understand that we now have the strategies that make sure that everyone in that classroom is able to get excited about learning, challenge themselves, and exceed their greatest expectations.

Specialized aids in and out of the classroom can target very specific needs for students that might have otherwise given up after multiple attempts at a developmentally inappropriate task. Students that need a bigger challenge or a different sort of challenge in the classroom can easily access very targeted extension programs that will help them be competitive in any academic environment. Modern and easily-accessible technological advances can do anything from allowing students quick access to college credits through lessons taught and facilitated by professionals all over the world, differentiated texts for every reading or mathematics ability level, to unfettered access to a wild variety of interactive and simply exciting content platforms. Yes, you received an education without many of these supports. And yet, wouldn’t you have jumped at the opportunity, if they had existed? Why would we deny our children a better education than we had ourselves? “Access” is a lot more than supplying the building. “Access” is about using everything we have in our toolbox to facilitate exquisite learning systems for each individual student in that classroom.

Answer 4: Tomorrow’s generation will be resentful.

At the end of the day, the priorities of a nation are showcased in how they allocate funding. When we cut funding to education programs without offering suitable or inspiring new initiatives, we cast a vote of “no confidence” for the youth of our country. No one wants budget cuts. None of the programs we champion deserve to lose financial support for the good work they are doing to help our citizens. But to cut education programs that give hope to millions is simply unconscionable, and will be resented by the future workforce.

In the aforementioned Framework for 21st Century Learning, the world’s employers have been transparent about the specific skills and content knowledge their future employees need to succeed. Countless studies have worked hard to identify not only how the human brain learns best, but exactly what sort of teaching and support practices yield the best result for learners. We know what works. We know what students need. To meet these demands and pay respect to the scientific findings of the 21st century, we need resources. And cutting funding to such programs is simply short-sighted and irresponsible. It will go down in the history books as a complete travesty and lack of foresight, and the future will never forgive us for it.

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment’s most recent report (one of the few comparable worldwide assessments) has found that the United States is internationally ranked 40th in math, 24th in reading, and 25th in science. These results raise serious questions about the competitiveness of our current educational system. Although we certainly can’t predict the future of educational policy, we can absolutely say that “less funding” will not help the scenario. No surprises there. And understand, as our world globalizes, our ability to keep up with our international neighbors will be essential to your children. We no longer live in tribalized pocket communities. Real business happens internationally, and we owe it to our children to make sure they are prepared to face that ever-changing employment landscape, head-on. If not, what are we all working toward? 

“The whole country is facing cutbacks. There are more important things going on in the world right now.” Are there? Listen, there’s no mistaking the fact that nothing comes free. We can’t spend money we don’t have. But ... we do spend money. And again, how we choose to spend that money says a lot about us as a people. It is a very public broadcast of what we value. What story would we like that narrative to tell? Are we an “every person for themselves / at least I got mine” country? Are we a “brawn over brains” country? “Reputation over depth of character”? Are we a hard-hitting military might, but not a critically-thinking, problem-solving, facilitator of discourse? Are we self-serving, ready to line the pockets of the few today at the expense of the many tomorrow? It’s time to be honest about our choices, what they are telling the world, and how they are affecting our future.

When we invest in education, we show the world that we believe in the power of self-determination, the search for truth, and liberty. We become a country primarily concerned with the well-being of our brothers and sisters that share this giant ball of rock and water at the edge of the Milky Way. Reprioritizing our priorities from the divisive bickerings of the present to the overwhelming need of the future is not only a smart investment, it’s ethically sound. None of this matters if we don’t stand by our youth. The political landscape might feel like a three-ring circus sometimes, and we’re doing what we can to mediate. But let’s keep our kids out of it.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.