Cost-Cutting Strategies – 2

The “Great Education Depression” offers principals an opportunity to critically examine resources and improve the teaching-learning process. By Frances Stetson Principal, March/April 2012 Web Exclusive Web Resources For several years, principals have been reading increasingly dire national headlines regarding the “Great Education Depression” and studying the impact of fiscal cutbacks on their schools with great concern.

The “Great Education Depression” offers principals an opportunity to critically examine resources and improve the teaching-learning process.
By Frances Stetson
Principal, March/April 2012 Web Exclusive

For several years, principals have been reading increasingly dire national headlines regarding the “Great Education Depression” and studying the impact of fiscal cutbacks on their schools with great concern. At the same time that accountability and quality of education for students are at the forefront of education policy discussions, reductions in faculty and programs also have surfaced as the reality of leaner school budgets. Yet, the budget crises facing schools today has a silver lining. Schools can take steps that will have an immediate and positive impact on the quality of the services provided to students while at the same time increasing student achievement and lowering short-term and future costs.

Sound impossible? Not so!

This article focuses on budget-cutting ideas for immediate application and suggests concrete strategies for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of services and supports for students. Our wish is to seek “no loss” for students while capitalizing on improving existing aspects of instructional delivery that in many cases have long begged for attention and change.

Framing the Work

An effort as important as budget review and reduction begins with a clear and rational approach to priority setting. The result of this work will provide you as principal with a set of criteria for making difficult decisions and offer a way to make your decisions transparent for faculty and parents. Ideally, you will convene a small, but representative, group of faculty members and parents to work with you to establish criteria for decisions. This list of criteria will reassure the school community that the quality of education for students is of utmost importance.

Your discussion can be guided by the following questions:

  • What are your non-negotiables? What programs or services do you consider indispensable? Which are highly successful and meet a particularly pressing need for your students and community that you would like to protect?
  • Are there district priorities that should influence your cost-cutting decisions? Consider your state and district accountability measures and any areas that are in need of improvement, such as adequate yearly progress (AYP) status and student attendance.
  • Is your school offering any nonmandated services that can be eliminated without significantly impacting overall quality? Examples might include summer enrichment programs and double-blocking core subjects.
  • Are there any obvious candidates for abandonment? Check for redundancy. For example, some schools have both a literacy specialist for general education and one for special education. Isn’t it time to embrace shared ownership and delete artificial separation of some services?
  • What is your district’s reduction in force (RIF) policy? How does it impact your school? Does it endanger the positions of some of your newest teachers while protecting senior-level teachers whose skills are not as strong? If so, will additional training or coaching be needed for those who remain? While you may not be able to change the district’s RIF policy, it is important to consider the ways in which it impacts your school.

For each major budget category, you must identify your best options for reducing costs. It is even more important to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your remaining staff and other resources. The vast majority of your effort will be spent addressing personnel costs for teachers, your largest expenditure.

Teachers: Cost-Cutting Possibilities

Your first task might be to answer this question: What are the positions in my school that have the least impact on students and can be reduced or eliminated? First, confirm that your teachers are well qualified and effective in their assigned roles. Make sure all special education teachers are highly qualified in at least one content area in addition to their special education endorsement. Eliminate unneeded classes such as a special study skills class for all students during their first year of attendance of middle school.

Additionally, monitoring class sizes, caseloads, and workloads on a monthly basis will ensure equitable and appropriate numbers. If you experience high student mobility, identify the times of the school year in which consolidation or expansion is needed and enter into a partnership with a geographically close school.

Review your response to intervention program to ensure it is working effectively so that services in the general education classroom (Tier I) are highly effective, differentiated, and responsive to diverse learners. When the quality of instruction in the general education classroom is low or when teachers respond to student variance by inappropriately requesting referral of students for additional services, the cost is high for students and for your budget. You should conduct periodic audits to be certain that students with disabilities are receiving the services as stipulated in their individualized education program (IEP) and the teachers are using their time appropriately. By doing so, you will help ensure that your certified teaching staff members are not filling roles that should be provided by trained paraeducators.

For more budget reduction ideas, review the full list of cost-cutting possibilities and opportunities in this robust resource from Stetson & Associates.

Teachers: Opportunities for Improvement

If your cost-cutting decisions lead you to a reduction in the number of teachers on your faculty, numerous strategies can increase the impact and quality of instruction for those remaining. Regardless of the presence or absence of a budget crisis, these changes should be made to increase student success, turn around a low-performing school, and underscore the professionalism of teaching.

Academic Learning Time. In our reviews of classroom practice, we frequently observe minimal academic learning time (ALT), or time in which students are actively engaged in appropriate learning activities, set at the appropriate level of difficulty. Principals should consider conducting regular audits of the amount of academic learning time in contrast to the amount of time allocated for learning. Watch for the detrimental effects of poor classroom management, inappropriate instructional materials or activities, and lost time due to administrative tasks such as taking attendance or passing out student work. You should consider reviewing the definition of academic learning time and providing teachers with the opportunity to chart their own ALT, to set goals for increasing ALT, and to engage in team discussions about ways in which to improve the rigor and appropriateness of assigned tasks.

Appropriate Use of Scaffolding or Instructional Accommodations. Scaffolding, or use of instructional accommodations, offers ways in which teachers can adjust methods, pacing, or materials to increase student acquisition of skills. They are then removed when the student masters the content. The learner outcome is not changed, just the ease with which students might acquire the learning. Examples include graphic organizers, chapter outlines, word banks, math manipulatives, and many other options that enable students to be more successful learners. When lecture-based instruction is provided in the same format day after day, many students grow frustrated, lose motivation for learning, and might achieve at lower levels.

Effective teachers know that almost every student benefits from an occasional learning scaffold. If an instructional accommodation is indicated on the IEP of a student with disabilities, that accommodation is deemed essential to support their learning. What the student is learning is not changed, but the way in which the student is presented the information is adjusted.

In my reviews of classrooms at all levels, and particularly striking within low performing schools, students seldom receive the scaffolding that would increase success, minimize teaching time, and maintain student interest and motivation. Teachers who do not understand the need for some kind of scaffolding for students who are learning new material often believe that additional services and/or staffing is needed to correct the problem. To what extent are all teachers in a school aware of these issues and strategies and to what extent are measures of student achievement impacted by the lack of appropriate scaffolding or use of instructional accommodations for any student who requires them?

Use of Instructional Planning Time. Principals sometimes feel like magicians as they create master schedules that offer common planning periods for teachers who share grade levels, subjects, or students in common. Yet having accomplished this difficult feat for all or most teachers on the faculty, school leaders must also provide direction and model the strategies for using their time well. As budgets become tighter, educators must use every resource, especially the resource of planning time, efficiently and effectively. Lead teachers should create a consistent agenda and norms for team behaviors, such as arriving on time with necessary materials and staying on topic. There should be some type of informal, but useful, product at the conclusion of the planning period. Historically, planning periods have been difficult to arrange and have not always resulted in improved instruction, collaboration, and creative problem-solving regarding difficult content or struggling students.

Roles of Department Chairs. Eliminate inappropriate or ineffective duties, review time used for each class period, and increase direct teaching responsibilities.

Schedules of Special Education, Other Special Population Teachers, and Related Service Personnel. Are these staff members providing services as assigned? Check regularly to ensure they are in the classrooms or settings indicated on their schedules. Make sure they are available to support students and are not consistently replaced by a substitute teacher due to attendance at inefficient IEP meetings. Make certain that special education teachers assigned to provide collaborative teaching in general education classrooms are indeed in their assigned classrooms providing instructional support in the roles of certified teachers versus paraeducators. If they require additional training and coaching regarding core content areas and research-based methodologies, provide this training immediately and follow up with scheduled meetings.

Inappropriate Use of Paraeducators. Assess the number of paraeducators on your staff. Review paraeducator schedules to make sure they are appropriately assigned to the correct number of students. Confirm that your teachers are aware of their responsibilities for matching paraeducator services to student needs. Make certain your teachers are providing paraeducators with consistent constructive feedback to help improve their performance. Principals can recapture a valuable resource for schools by ensuring the appropriate use of paraeducators and by making certain that teachers fulfill their vital roles in directing and monitoring paraeducator services.

While principals are being forced to make painful decisions in today’s tough economic climate, they also have the opportunity to critically examine each and every resource and to improve the teaching-learning process. We can and should do more with less.


Frances Stetson is president of Stetson & Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on educational excellence and systems change.

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