Teachers or Specialists? Make a Choice.

Although most recently a high school principal, my career included several years as a Talented and Gifted (TAG) educational specialist as well as many, many years as a classroom teacher.  I do value specialists and think we had some excellent ones in our district.  But more recently, I've noted a disturbing trend: eliminating classroom teachers while increasing the numbers of educational specialists.

Like most school districts, ours was strapped financially after the stimulus dollars ran out.  Drastic cutbacks were no one's preference but could not be avoided.  In the past few years, my school's enrollment declined by about 100 students and the school lost 14 teachers (1 teacher for every 7 students):

Teacher Cuts at NVHS in the past 5 years
4 Vocational Teachers
1 English Teacher
2 Special Education Teachers
1.5 Spanish Teachers
1 Math Teacher
1 Health Teacher
1 Social Studies Teacher
1 Science Teacher
1 Counselor

Including the one remaining counselor (for 600 students), there are 18.5 teachers this year.  There will be still fewer if the district achieves its goal of an average 35:1 student teacher ratio.  The goal at elementary schools in the district is 28:1.  Of course, averages are just that -- averages.  To maintain Advanced Placement offerings, other classes must be overloaded.  In a small high school's schedule, balance is never achieved and too many teachers have class sizes over 40.  At the elementary level, small schools mean a similar thing -- perhaps an overcrowded 2nd grade and small 3rd grade class.  Kids in neighborhoods do not comply with the appropriate birth spacing expected by schools.

This is nothing new though.  Many districts nationwide are suffering similar horrific cuts, at the expense of their students as well as new job seekers.  What troubles me though is a pattern not only in my former district of expanding district office staff at a time of drastic teacher reductions.  I decided to look into the same district's history of creating educational specialist positions:

TRSD District-wide Specialists

1994:  2 TAG, 1 ESL, 1 Librarian, 1 Title I, , 1 Writing, 1 Special Ed  = 7 
Note:  1994 was a flush year for our district due to changes in Oregon tax law.

2000:  1 TAG/Curriculum, 1 ESL, 1 Librarian, 1 Special Ed = 4

2006:  1 TAG/Curriculum, 1 Special Ed, 1 ESL  = 3

2012:  1 TAG/Curriculum, 1 Special Ed, 1 Tech Ed, .5 Math, 1 Instructional Specialist, 1 Elementary Curriculum, 1 ESL, 1 Secondary Curriculum = 7.5

As a former specialist, I believe your ability to make a difference in a district is profound.  I also find the individuals chosen to be exemplary educators.  And honestly, they are often more effective than the district administrators selected to supervise them.  But their work depends upon time allowed with the teachers they work with.  And teachers overworked as ours are this year cannot spare the time to concentrate on the great techniques being shared.  In a year such as this one, classroom management and meeting deadlines will win over inventive instruction. 

Place a few of those teachers back in classrooms, reduce class sizes thereby and watch how much more innovative and inspired the other 250 teachers in the district might become.  Hire school and district administrators who truly are instructional experts and expect them to take the lead in teacher training and mentoring.  For the cost of each specialist (figure over $100k in salary and benefits plus travel, materials and so on), some mighty inspired national level trainers could be brought in to work with teachers.