Unintended — and hurtful — consequences

Published 10:00 pm Friday, October 7, 2011

There is, perhaps, no period in a youngster’s education when she needs more stability than during the time from kindergarten to third grade. As they transition from home environments to the big new world of school, it is important for children in this age range to have a degree of trust in their new teachers.

Unfortunately, it is at just this level of the educational system in Suffolk Public Schools that students are most at risk of being uprooted by having their teachers moved out of their classrooms just as the trust between teacher and students has been established.

Through the K3 Class Size Reduction initiative, the commonwealth of Virginia gives the local school system money to keep student-teacher ratios at 24-to-one or lower in kindergarten and first to third grades. For Suffolk, that program-related contribution amounted to $1.4 million this year.

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While the stated purpose of the program is admirable and has a foundation in research showing that younger students, especially, benefit from more direct interaction with their teachers, there are — as always with sweeping government programs — unintended consequences. The most egregious of those consequences is the fact that teachers for some of Suffolk’s youngest students are moved around each year in a shuffle to get the ratios below the limit at all of Suffolk’s schools.

This year, after waiting 10 days for student populations to stabilize, 11 different teachers were shuffled around the system. That means students in 11 different classrooms — including some at the primary school level — had more than a week to get used to their teachers, only to learn in a flash that those teachers would be leaving and new ones brought in, restarting the whole process of establishing trust between teachers and their new students.

A surprising side effect of the policy is that fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms risk growing larger as a result of the shuffle. Since those grades are not under the same state mandates, teachers in those classrooms are sometimes asked to move into younger classrooms created to help a school meet the class-size requirements. So third-graders are guaranteed the one-on-one attention that is assumed to exist in the smaller classes, while their brothers and sisters just one year older enjoy no such assurance.

The whole unfortunate situation provides yet another example of the dangers inherent in broad, central policies that are applied at the local level. In pursuit of $1.4 million, Suffolk schools find themselves each year at the mercy of an inflexible program that often harms the very children it was designed to protect.

It’s impossible to say how many such programs — originating at either the state or federal level — present similar problems. One can be sure, however, that the K3 Class Size Reduction initiative is far from the only offender. As frustrating as local education administrators and School Board members can be, the simple fact is that nearly every decision that is taken out of their hands and put onto the desk of some bureaucrat in Richmond or Washington, D.C., winds up having costly and sometimes painful unintended consequences.