Wednesday, April 13, 2011

AV#73 - Class size - For Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates - A lump of coal in your stocking

                   ANOTHER VIEW #73

                                    Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                        Dec. 17, 2010

For Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates –
A lump of coal in your stocking*

The two portly gentlemen have asked for a contribution. Scrooge insists on giving nothing.
“I wish to be left alone,” he said. “… I help support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

’Tis the season. You’d like a story of good cheer.  Sorry to disappoint you. But if Dickens could tell a Christmas story with more than a little bitterness and anger, I feel it’s OK to follow in his shoes.  True, Scrooge finds happiness: “…and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.”  This piece ends with another vulnerable child, Tiny Bianca, waiting for….a better school, where she is not lost in a large classroom.

Stop Making Sense

Those who are “badly off must go” to schools and sit in classrooms with 29 other students.  “They cost enough.”  Teachers begging for smaller classes—that’s just union talk.  We can’t afford it. Add a hand-ful of kids. For the secondary teacher, that’s 5 students, times 5 classes. Another 25 students. No big deal.  

Who would offer such a silly idea? Well ho-ho-ho, if it isn’t Saint Nick himself.  Yes, or at least the two jolly men who must have doled out more money to education reform in 2010 than anyone else in America: Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates.  Mr. Claus at the U.S. Department of Education, who delivered sleigh loads of federal stimulus money and Race to the Top grants across the land. And Microsoft’s Seattle Santa, philanthropy’s leading voice for education reform, our nation’s most generous grant-maker. 

“Even Santa makes mistakes” (or) there ain’t no Sanity Clause

Groucho:  That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause.
Chico:  You can't a fool a me … there ain't no sanity clause.
A Night at the Opera
“Even Santa”—my parents must have told me (a 7-year-old with a crew cut) when I opened that present in my stocking—oops, a brush and comb surely meant for one of my sisters—“makes mistakes.”  (Blame the elves!)  Even these two bright men can be wrong.  Unfortunately, they have outsize influence.  Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and coeditor of Stretching the School Dollar, says: “By stepping up to speak frankly and offer bold solutions, Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates are making it much easier for state and local leaders to make tough but necessary decisions.”  Yes, policymakers and funders listen to these two men.  Already others have chimed in—including the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—singing the same tune.  All of whom I respect for their leadership and views on so many issues.  But on class size, I believe they are wrong.

So a lump of coal in your Christmas stockings, Secretary of Education Duncan, and to you, Mr. Gates. Here is my protest.  For advocating an idea that most teachers, parents, and students can only call foolish. 
* The history of coal in a Christmas stocking is nothing more than being left off the toy list as a result of bad behavior. When stockings were being filled the gift giver reaches down by the fireplace to the bin, grabs a hunk or two of coal, and stuffs the naughty child's stocking while placing toys in the stockings of those children who have been a joy to their parents.
Reader: expect no narrative flow. Perhaps it reflects my anger. Just a few snapshots, potshots, rim shots….

Teacher as widget. Or teacher as human being, seeking to know and connect with students …

Last year reformers heralded “The Widget Effect—Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness,” The New Teacher Project’s powerful study of 15,000 teachers in 12 school districts (including DPS and Pueblo 60).  The message: don’t view teachers as widgets, as “interchangeable parts”—or as Webster’s puts it, “something considered typical or representative, as of a manufacturer’s products: the widgets coming off the assembly line.”

Nice to be told we are individuals. With different levels of success. Who should not be treated as thingamajigs.

You know, we might even be human beings, who are only capable of knowing well a certain number of students. Who cannot teach 120 students as well as we can 100; who cannot teach 100 students as well as we can 80….  And just as true for elementary teachers.  It hurts to see a friend, a teacher who has been so effective with 25 boys and girls, now disheartened, struggling to reach her 34 students in a nearby school.

On the assembly line - with Charlie Chaplin: Speed her up!

Let’s go to an assembly line, the famous scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin is working in a factory, tightening a pair of bolts as they rush by on the conveyor belt, both hands at work; occasionally he falls behind because of an underarm itch, or a bee flying by his twitching nose (and twitching mustache)—and as a result gets threatening looks and gestures from his supervisor and co-workers. 

Upstairs the boss of Electro Steel Corp takes a break from his puzzle and the funny papers long enough to bark out to his beefy minion: “Section 5, speed her up!” We laugh as our tramp snaps his wrists faster and faster to match the raised tempo of the conveyor belt, and then as he chases after some bolts he failed to tighten. Another shout from the Voice on High: “Section 5, give it the limit!” Soon it’s too much.  Charlie jumps on that belt and gets swallowed up inside the machinery and the gears.  When he is emerges, he is, impossibly, fine physically—but briefly out of his mind, which leads to the merry scene in which he dances around squeezing oil in the faces of co-workers, his superiors, the police. A mad rebel. (Splat!)

In asking us to think anew amidst our tighter education budgets, what does our Secretary of Education say?

Our K12 system largely still adheres to the centuryold, industrialage factory model of
education…. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools.
But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century….  
            (Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” Nov. 17, 2010)

Good, no more factory model. Then what in the world is he doing from his sleek office upstairs barking–OK, in Duncan’s case, recommending—bigger classes? More Speed!  Give it the limit!

            … Parents, like myself, understandably like smaller classes. We would like to have small classes      for everyone‐‐and it is good news that the size of classes in the U.S. has steadily shrunk for       decades. But in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size….

More students! You can work harder, right?  Those of you teaching grades 7-12, with five classes of 25, surely you know your 125 students well by Dec. 17, right?  Of course you have built strong relationships with each and every one of them, yes? But hey, challenge yourself, don’t be a wimp, here’s another 3 or 4 a class, you don’t have a problem with 29 do you?—just another 20 kids to know, 20 more papers to grade….

            Many highperforming education systems, especially in Asia, have substantially larger classes          than the United States. According to OECD data, secondary school classes in South Korea     average about 36 students. In Japan, it’s 33 students per class. In the U.S., it’s 25 students per                     class. In fact, teachers in Asia sometimes request larger class sizes because they think a broad   distribution of students and skill levels can accelerate learning.

Darn! I KNEW there was something wrong with me! I am not volunteering to have bigger classes so that I can have more 14-year-olds whose voices will not be heard in our 50-minute class, so that I can have more paragraphs and essays to read, so that I can spend more time on Saturday and Sunday grading, so that to be even moderately effective as a writing teacher it will now take not 8 or 10 but probably 12 hours most weekends so that I can be caught up and ready to teach my 29 x 5 = 146 students on Monday. What’s WRONG with us that we who don’t ask for an even broader “distribution of students and skill levels”!—(as if we don’t already have a huge range in our rooms with 21-24 students, as I saw last spring with my two 6th grade classes). And guess what—this is how, Duncan claims, we “elevate the teaching profession”!

            We have to learn from highperforming school systems in other nations, including how to    elevate the teaching profession and better support our neediest schools.

Two wrongs make a …  whopper.  What are they thinking?

Two days later Bill Gates praised Duncan’s “terrific speech” and again suggested the belt tightening that must take place in our nation’s capitals is a chance to rethink class size.  He told the Council of Chief State School Officers:

“Your predecessors … could push reforms with big price tags. Schools hired new staff, added more specialists, and reduced class sizes. We went from one adult for every 19 students to one adult for every 8 students. I don’t question the good intentions behind it, but these have been costly changes, and they have not led to better student achievement….
            “We know today that the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent       teaching. It’s amazing how effective the great teachers are. We should be making the most of        their skill. But we don’t….  Great teachers are a precious natural resource. But we have to figure           out how to make them a renewable, expandable resource.”

So that’s what we are: “a renewable, expandable resource”?  I guess it’s better than being seen as a widget— or as a member of an assembly line. And yet a teacher has only so many resources, and so much time.

Gates continued: “… smaller class sizes have not correlated with rising achievement. California spent $20 billion reducing class sizes, and student achievement did not change.” What to do instead?

            Conservative estimates suggest that we can save more than $10,000 per classroom by           increasing class size by just four pupils. If we pay some of that money to our best teachers for          taking in more students, we accomplish three goals at once – we save money, we get more           students in classrooms with highly effective teachers, and we give our best teachers a real raise,     not just for being good, but for taking on more work. 

Pay me to teach more students? No thanks. We compromise enough as it is. We have our standards too.

Here is where I should point to “the evidence based on research” on class size. And go ahead, tell me my autobiography is meaningless besides “the facts.’’ Perhaps.  But teaching has been 18 years of my life and so, yes, this is personal.  To have over 100 students (in Vermont) was “easy” compared to fellow English teachers here in Colorado, today, in schools nearby, many of whom have 150 students– 5 x 30—in their classes. And yet I found 100 too much. It was one reason behind my move from a public school to a private school (no more than 65 students) in the ’80’s. It was a reason many teachers—and the Colorado foundation I worked for in the early 1990’s—supported one of the key principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools—developed by Ted Sizer, a former teacher and headmaster (Andover Academy), a man who knew understood classrooms and teacher-students relations as well as anyone. The principle:

Personalization: Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent. Efforts should be directed toward a goal that no teacher have direct responsibility for more than 80 students in the high school and middle school and no more than 20 in the elementary school.

It was a reason that when I returned to teach this past decade, I was only willing to work in schools (including two charter schools) where the teacher-student ratio enabled me to feel I could be effective.  And it was one factor in my not going back to the school (teach 100 again?) where I taught last spring. 

Ignore those Wise Men bearing gifts… On class size, listen to teachers, parents, and students.

Before closing, rather than listen further to Wise Men who come bearing a silly idea on how to make our schools more productive, listen to a teacher.  I asked my cousin, in Florida, who started teaching last year at age 61 after a successful career in computers, about his 2002 state law lowering class size:

We really think our law is good for education.  I think the numbers–18: K-3, 22: 4-8, and 24 or 25 for H.S. were arrived at very responsibly.  After over a year with class sizes in compliance for my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes, I feel that the numbers are just right.  I have 18, 22, and 22 and feel like I have a good teaching relationship with all of my students.    With our “No Child Left Behind” requirement, the class size is especially important.  We get some very hard to deal with students that could not otherwise be dealt with in a larger class size. 

For fun, listen to teachers vent on Duncan’s speech (any day now Wikileaks will release emails exchanged by teachers following Speeches by Folks of Influence Who Should Know Better!) at Joanne Jacobs’ webstite: (Nov. 20, 2010).

Best of all, let’s hear from a student.  This is my attempt to replicate the ending of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  All goes still. The spotlight is on Linus as he reminds us “what Christmas is all about.”  

People ask what school reform is about.  If nothing else, we must argue for smaller classes.  I close with words—not from scripture—just from 7-year-old Bianca (“Personalities of the Year, The Kids of Waiting for Superman,” Parade, Dec. 12, 2010), one of the children in Waiting for Superman eager to find a better alternative to the public school she attends.  Bianca is still waiting.  “We have 30 kids in my class and one teacher,” the Harlem second grader says softly. “She doesn’t have time for each of us.”

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