I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the 'Formers Drive Me Nuts

Here's Chief 'Former Arne Duncan:
And he urged districts to consider "modest but smartly targeted increases in class size." As a parent, Duncan said, he'd much rather have his kids in a class of 26 with a really excellent teacher, than in a class with 22 kids, lead by a mediocre teacher. And he said that in Asian countries that tend to do well on international benchmarks (like South Korea and Japan) average classes in secondary schools are 30 or more, as opposed to the U.S. average of about 25.
During a question and answer period, one teacher questioned that rationale, saying that if she took on additional students, that's asking her to do more for the same amount of money. Duncan said he'd like districts to consider reworking contracts so that effective teachers (particularly those who choose to work with more kids) can make a lot more money, say $80,000, or even $125,000.
First: we have a lot of good evidence that class size reductions work. And I mean a LOT of good evidence. Why we want to mess with charter schools and merit pay which don't have anything close to this amount of evidence backing them is beyond me.

But then look at Duncan's conflation: if we have better teachers, we could have bigger classes. And that would save us money. Except we'd have to pay teachers more, because there would be more work for each teacher, and that would cost us money.

Is it too much to ask for a cogent argument from these folks?

Here's Bruce Baker:
Interest in teacher quality over class size reduction has grown so strong that some are beginning to make the leap that we should simply increase class size to 30 or even 35 students per class in order to pay enough to get really good teachers. After all, who can argue with the logic that a good teacher with 35 kids is better than a crappy one with 20 kids.  Of course, this assumes falsely that every class of 35 would be taught by a better teacher, on average, than those teaching the classes of 20, because every teacher currently teaching the smaller classes is crappy. That said, we do have pretty consistent evidence that salary increases could increase teaching quality.
However, we also have at least some evidence that teacher quality and class size interact.  We may find that we are fighting a losing battle trying to recruit high quality teachers to teach classes of 35 kids even at the higher salary. This may especially be the case in schools and districts where large classes are particularly difficult to manage. Class size is a working condition and more desirable working conditions can reduce the need for paying higher salaries – another trade-off for which we have no good dollar to dollar estimates. [emphasis mine]
This is exactly right. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard frustrated colleagues tell me that they just don't have the time to work their magic because their class is just too damn big. This is especially problematic at the elementary level. You want good teachers to stay in your district? Give them smaller classes.

And let me add a tidbit about Korean education:
Alongside public elementary schools there are a number of private elementary schools in Korea, usually distinguishable by the uniforms their students wear (public elementary school students do not wear uniforms apart from PE kit). These schools follow a similar curriculum as public elementary schools, but often offer superior facilities, a higher teacher-to-student ratio, and extra programs. They also usually offer a higher standard of learning. Though highly desirable, they are prohibitively expensive for many Korean parents.
Bruce makes the same point about American private schools:
Yes, consumers of luxury schooling seem to have a pretty strong preference for small classes, despite modern wisdom that class size is clearly second fiddle to teaching quality. Imagine the teacher salaries one could pay by moving pupil to teacher ratios in independent schools from 8/1 up to the public school average of 16/1. Imagine the salaries that could be paid in affluent Westchester County and Long Island school districts by increasing class sizes from 16 or 18 up to 35? (see this post on just how high these salaries already are!)
For some reason these private schools and affluent public school districts – more specifically those who support these schools – exhibit a strong preference for small class size even when given wide latitude to cho0se differently. Perhaps they are on to something?
There's only one reason Duncan is pushing this: money. But let me ask this:

If and when that happy day comes, Arne, when all of your teachers are "really excellent"...

...will you be willing to pay ALL of them $125K? Or will we still have a system where there are some great teachers and some mediocre ones?

And how will you decide which students get which teachers?

1 comment:

calugg said...

Duke, I sent this in an e-mail, but I think it underscores your point.

The political environment surrounding public education is particularly toxic. Bill Gates announced this week that teachers really didn't need masters degrees to be outstanding teachers.I wonder if he feels the same about computer engineers hired by Microsoft.

It *IS* an age where ignorance reigns (see Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc). Cultural leaders who wear their profound ignorance as badges of honor, as proof of their moral righteousness. I don't know if you've read Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectual in American Life" (1966), but this era is Hofstadter's worst nightmare.

Similarly, anti-intellectualism is driving "reform" in public education, where committed public servants are derided as "greedy" by our governor, and claims that untrained business people can run school districts (see NYC).

Anyway, while I'm deeply concerned, this era of anti-intellectualism will pass. But it must be battled against every inch of the way. Otherwise, even more hard will be inflicted on school children and educators. We are engaged in a war on stupid. It's real, and its proponents (The Right, but also Obama), have the public's ears. We must focus on the public's hearts and minds instead.