Monthly Archives: November 2012

It Doesn’t Matter If Class Size Matters

I’ll admit it: I kind of like low attendance days at school. With fewer students in the classroom the day is calmer and more relaxed; I feel like I have more flexibility to focus in on struggling students. In that sense, I am definitely a fan of smaller classes.

Much has been written about the effect of reducing class size on student achievement, and results are generally mixed, though it seems to have a more positive effect on elementary school students. Yet the policy has a passionate and politically active following, led by the New York-based Class Size Matters.

I’m not going to engage in the debate on the effectiveness of smaller classes; that is for people far more knowledgeable than me. But in a practical sense, whether class size “matters” is the wrong question: we need to be talking about efficiency. Advocating for a policy because it would work without considering its relative cost and viable alternatives is an irresponsible and unrealistic exercise.

In theory, the goal of any education policy is to improve outcomes for kids. With countless policy options and a limited budget, we have no make difficult choices about what those policies should be. Most people would agree that having books at school provides a benefit that justifies the cost; on the other hand, buying each student an xBox so they can play educational games is not considered a worthwhile cost. (Hey, you’ve got to give the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation some credit for not taking the pro-Microsoft path there.)

Of course, it is not always that simple. There are policies that could potentially have massive impacts but are not feasible because of their cost. For instance, I bet our students would be in dramatically better shape academically if each of them had five hours of one-on-one tutoring every evening. Would that “matter”? Of course. But it would be so expensive that it is almost silly to even discuss it as a possibility.

In other words, “mattering” is not enough. Especially in our cash-strapped cities, we need to be looking at efficiency of our policies–whether each dollar we spend is getting us the most in return. Dramatically decreasing class size, though it may help kids, isn’t good policy simply because it costs too much. And anyone who is serious about improving education in this country should switch their focus to feasible alternatives. I fully acknowledge that smaller classes would make my day-to-day easier. But that doesn’t make it good policy.

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What the Washington and Georgia Charter Victories Mean for Ed Reform

Though President Obama’s resounding victory rightly dominated national attention on Tuesday, education reform movement won as well: referenda expanding the use of charter schools in both Washington and Georgia gained key victories. The bill in Washington is particularly significant: three previous initiatives had been rejected, leaving the state as one of only 10 in the nation with no charters. These victories, while minor at first glance, could be a boon for education reform in general. They are a signal of an impending national recognition of the need to expand school options, particularly in our cities.

For most voters, education is (understandably) a local issue. When discussion turns to schools, people inevitably think about schools in their communities, where their children go. And if those schools are satisfactory, statewide education reforms–including school choice–seems unnecessary. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that most states have huge disparities in educational quality: having great school districts in a state doesn’t preclude the presence of bad ones.  For advocates of statewide reform, the trick becomes communicating the necessity of reform to voters in good school districts that wouldn’t reap its benefits. Not an easy task.

That’s why the results in Washington and Georgia are so encouraging. It appears that the general public is starting to understand what so many people in struggling school districts already do: creating more high-quality school options is key to improving outcomes for the thousands of kids who aren’t receiving a quality education. Voters are developing a powerful collective mindset that our goal should be to ensure that all kids–not just our own–are attending great schools. If more people follow the lead of citizens in Washington and Georgia and turn their thoughts towards schools outside of their communities, we will make significant progress towards the goals to which we aspire. Education reformers should be emboldened by these results and push harder than ever.

Stop the “Rhee Scare” of Education Reform Conspiracy Theories

James Cersonsky recently sparked a debate with his piece on the increasing influence of Teach for America alumni in education policy. He discusses the TFA spin-off organization Leadership for Educational Equity, which was created as a resource for TFA alums who are interested in education policy and advocacy. (As someone who absolutely fits that profile, I am proud to call myself an LEE member.) Unfortunately, Cersonsky’s piece ignores the obvious and universally positive consequence of TFA’s growing alumni base–a new generation of leaders dedicated to improving education in this country–in favor of perpetuating conspiracy theories about education reform.

Cersonsky details the various initiatives of LEE, including supporting candidates for public office, providing online trainings for advocacy, and hosting an extensive job bank. He also explicitly acknowledges that the organization doesn’t push any particular ideology or policy. Not too nefarious, right? But that doesn’t stop Cersonsky from diving into paranoia:

And while LEE may be policy-neutral, it isn’t hard to imagine the massive proliferation of Michelle Rhees and, in turn, the entrenchment of education reform geared toward money-soaked charter expansion, “new unionism,” and test-based student achievement. In other words, what began—and is still viewed by many—as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education.

Besides the comical contention that something not being “hard to imagine” somehow constitutes an argument, this quote shows that Cersonsky is one of a growing group of people who absurdly view TFA corps members and education reformers as part of a conspiracy dedicated to destroying public education.

Don’t get me wrong: Policies generally associated with modern education reform–charter expansion, tenure reform, merit pay, etc.–certainly should be debated and critiqued, as all policies should be. But opponents of those policies prefer fear-mongering to actual discussion. Worst is the implication that “reformers” are trying to do anything but improve outcomes for kids. Everyone in the education debate needs to understand that we all ultimately have the same goals; what differs is the means towards those goals. And for that reason, anyone who is truly dedicated to improving education in this country should be excited by a generation of young politicians eager to raise the issue on the public agenda, regardless of what that may mean for their preferred policy solution. Resorting to baseless accusations and personal attacks is childish and unproductive.

When reading Cersonsky’s piece, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to absurd anti-Communist rhetoric during the Red Scare. In education today, I suppose we have a “Rhee Scare,” with modern McCarthys like Cersonsky abound. We should approach them with skepticism.