Bill Quirk Replies to the Guilford Board of Education

The numbered statements, appearing in italics, are from Bill Bloss's letter "Response to Dr. Quirk."to Bill Quirk.   Bill Quirk's comments are indented in context.
  1. Dear Dr. Quirk:

  2. As you may recall, we briefly discussed your thoughts regarding the proposed
    new middle school during a break at a recent Board of Education meeting, before the
    meeting reconvened. You invited me to review your suggestions in more detail on your
    web site, and gave me your web site’s address. I have done so, and I would offer to you
    these preliminary reactions. I would note that these are my personal opinions and views,
    and not necessarily the opinions of the Board as a whole, a majority of the Board, or,
    indeed, any other member of the Board.
  3. Public education in Guilford works very well.
  4. I was not on the Board in 1999 when Educational Consultants of Connecticut (ECC) was retained to perform its study of the Adams school, and cannot comment from personal knowledge on how or why it was chosen.
  5. I have read the report and am familiar with its recommendations.
  6. I am convinced that the Adams building simply cannot continue to be used as a school with anything approaching the number of students who are there now, much less the number who are likely to attend as a result of increases in enrollment, without very major additions and renovations.
  7. You have offered your thoughts about creating K-5 schools, with two 6-8 schools . . . if we added 80 5 th grade students to each elementary school, we would need to add four classrooms to each school or to increase class sizes for the other grades by an amount that would likely be both an unsound educational practice (which parents would rightly criticize) and a violation of our contract with the teachers regarding class sizes. There are no empty classrooms in any of our elementary schools. Therefore, at a bare minimum we would need a major (and simultaneous) program of additions, or we would need to build a new elementary school as well as add a larger addition than currently planned onto the Baldwin school and significantly renovate the existing Adams school. I have very real doubts that would amount to any cost savings.
  8. Another reason why we are not likely to change grade alignments is that those who have been entrusted with setting Guilford’s educational policies believe that the current model for grade spans is, for this town at this time, in the best interests of our children.
  9. However, based on our experience in Guilford, it appears that the current grade spans weigh the competing concerns reasonably well.
  10. With all due respect, I think that you overstate the case when you write that the “consensus” view is that K-8 schools, or at least K-6 schools, offer significant educational benefits compared with schools with smaller grade spans. To the contrary, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) magazine articles that you cited make it clear that there is no such consensus.
  11. Further, Hooper writes that “student performance can be attributed less to the building shape or grade-level configuration than simply to effective teaching and leadership,” and “the truth is almost any building or grade configuration can be used to create success for students.” I agree.
  12. If there is in fact a significant advantage to keeping children in Guilford in one school through grade 6, I would expect to see a significant change in performance on the CMT from grade 4 to grade 6 in Guilford. In other words, if under our circumstances, the grade 4 to grade 5 transition really hurt achievement in Guilford, I might expect to see CMT results lower from grade 4 to grade 6 to a statistically significant degree. In fact, in 2001 the percentage of 6 th grade students testing at or above the state goal in the CMT was higher than the percentage of 4 th grade students at the state goal on their CMT for mathematics (77% to 75%) and reading (91% to 82%). The number was, however lower for writing in 2001 (76% to 85%), although in 2000 it was higher in writing for 6 th graders (83% to 81%). I will concede, as I must, that we cannot know whether the results would be even higher in 6 th grade if we had K-6 or K-8 schools. However, it seems to me difficult to prove with our CMT results that the grade 4-5 transition in Guilford has had a material negative impact on student performance by grade 6.
  13. I would also add that in my three years on the board, no parent or teacher has ever said anything to me that suggests that the current grade alignment either is not working or that performance could be improved by a different configuration.
  14. This may be due in part to the suggestion in some of the studies cited that K-8 schools are much more valuable for students in lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
  15. The studies that you cite offer some reasons why K-6 or K-8 schools might have advantages over narrower grade ranges. One is team teaching, which Pardini concludes based on her review of one paper is “more likely to be found in K-8 schools than in middle schools.” Perhaps that is true elsewhere, but in Guilford we have team teaching in each of our middle schools. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of the new 7-8 building is its intentional creation of smaller learning areas where teachers can team teach groups of 100 students, all within a reasonably compact area.  Teachers will be able to – and will be expected to – communicate and work with each other about student goals and performance.
    1. The BOE proposal is fundamentally about an imagined ideal environment for the latest fad, isolating a team of 5 teachers and 100 (or less) students in a “pod” of 5 classrooms.  We’ve already isolated students in narrow 2-year grade spans, with Baldwin for grades 5-6 and Adams for grades 7-8.   Now we are to believe that it’s a good idea to isolate students of the same age in classroom pods, further removing then from the orienting social context.    But there’s no research showing that team teaching in pods leads to an improvement in educational outcomes.  There may be associated negative results, because weak teachers benefit the most from such maximum isolation.   As currently structured, a sixth grade math teacher doesn’t have to face the 8th grade math teacher who wants to know why students don’t know how to add fractions.
  16. There are, to be sure, some apparent advantages of schools with broader grade ranges. As the Pardini paper notes, schools with many grade levels have more opportunities for cross-age activities such as tutoring activities, and they may be able to sustain greater parental involvement. It doesn’t really seem likely that changing our elementary schools from K-4 to K-5 would make much of a difference in that respect, and changing them to K-6 or K-8 would simply not be possible.
  17. Two-grade schools do, according to Pardini, “present the challenge of how to preserve a sense of continuity and stability when . . . half of the student population turns over every year.”
  18. Pardini also notes, however, that schools with wide grade spans may offer “fewer opportunities for elective or exploratory courses,” and fewer classrooms per grade “means fewer opportunities to match students to teachers according to learning and teaching styles, to place students with others with whom they work well, or to separate students who don’t get along.”
  19. Schools with small grade spans “may offer the opportunity for a special focus on problems particular to that grade level,” she notes.
  20. Other factors that may affect grade configuration and which supply support for the grade 5-8 “campus” that the administration is proposing include lower transportation costs, the arguable potential for increased parent involvement, and the reduction of one point of transition – although Baldwin and Adams would still be separate schools, the transition could not help but be reduced since the two schools would be in the same location and some interaction between grade levels would likely occur.
  21. There are many ways to deliver a quality education to students in Guilford. I have little doubt that if we had three or four K-8 schools, we would still deliver excellent educational services, although at the cost of some classes and programs at the upper grades.
  22. “[A]lthough grade organization has some important connections to particular programs and practices, on average, grade span need not be the determinant of responsive education.”
  23. Therefore, while I appreciate your thoughtful comments about the future of Guilford’s schools and respect your participation in what ought to be a healthy debate, I continue to believe that the Administration’s proposals are reasonable and a new school ought to be built.
  24. I am, quite frankly, skeptical about the state’s projected enrollment figures – I am afraid that they may be far too low. There are about 8000 housing units in Guilford, and roughly 4000 students – an average of 0.5 student per household. Last year I looked at the students per household in a couple of our newer subdivisions. Some streets had between 1.0 and 1.5 students per household, far in excess of the town average. That seems consistent with what one would believe is the case: the new developments include

  25. larger houses, and larger houses often are built for families with children. The town's recent “build out” study suggests that if an additional 1000 acres are committed to open space, then we may have an additional 2000 dwelling units within the next 10-20 years. Does that mean that we will have an additional 1000-2000 students in our schools? I can't say yes or no with any confidence; that's certainly not what the state is predicting.
  26. But as I’m sure you can appreciate even a small annual underestimate would lead to a very large increase over time. I have been told that when the high school was built it was criticized by some as being too big and too expensive for planned growth, and that Guilford would never need that much capacity. That was two additions ago. I understand that the proposed new school is expensive. Indeed, I was somewhat reserved about the project in the beginning, and decisions about it have not been easy, at least not for me.   I respect any reasoned decision that anyone makes on this issue.
  27. Although I do believe that this proposal is in the town’s interests. I voted for the proposal as a Board member, and I intend to vote for it at referendum. Any remedy is going to have a cost, and the marginal cost of a new school compared to the marginal cost of even minimal additions to Adams is reasonable – about 1.2 mills, or around $200 annually for a typical Guilford house at its peak, declining slowly over the life of the bonds. (The median sale price of a home in Guilford in 1999 was $222,000. If we assume that the median fair market value of homes in Guilford at the time would be the same – a reasonable assumption – the assessed value of the home would be 70% of $222,000. A 1.2 mill increase for a house assessed at $150,000 would be, roughly, $200.) And this does not factor in the savings from avoiding the need to obtain new town office space (and possibly a new elementary school, which could be placed at the old Adams building if needed) if the old Adams building is not available for that use. It is simply not fair to compare the cost of a new school to doing nothing; doing nothing would be irresponsible and it simply is not an option.
  28. This is a uniquely favorable time to build: bonding rates have not been lower in my lifetime; construction costs have not been lower since the late 1980’s; and, very importantly, the state’s reimbursement rate for new schools will almost certainly decline during the upcoming legislative session. The state will now pay for about one-third of our new school. I have no doubt that if we delay this project, the rate will be lower – the state faces an unprecedented budget deficit of $1.5 billion next year, and revenue sharing with towns like Guilford seems unlikely to be a strong priority for the General Assembly in this economic climate. In short, delay is likely to cost Guilford’s taxpayers, and I am afraid that I cannot support any further delay. To do so would be, in my view, reckless.

Copyright 2003 William G. Quirk, Ph.D.
The reader is invited to print and/or copy this paper.