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.

The Tide is Turning In Teacher Evaluation

Last week, Teach Plus released its long-awaited national survey of teachers’ opinions on various aspects of education reform. The report focuses on the growing differences in opinion between teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience–“The New Majority”–and teaching veterans. Perhaps the most striking of these differences concerns the use of student growth in evaluating teachers. From the report:

Whereas the notion of standards of effectiveness finds broad support among all teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness sees far less support among veteran teachers. New Majority teachers are far more likely
to agree that growth in student learning should be included as part of  a teacher’s evaluation. When asked about the use of student growth measures in their evaluations, 71 percent of New Majority teachers
agree that student gains should be included in teacher evaluations as compared to 41 percent of veteran teachers.

In other words, younger teachers are more than twice as likely to say that student learning should be used as part of their evaluation. As I’ve written previously, such a system is both common sense and elevates the profession; only inertia and reliance on anachronism have prevented widespread implementation.

But that may soon change. Indeed, the results of the survey show that the days of that status quo in education may be numbered. Since we know that a great teacher is the ultimate difference maker for kids, it is only logical that our system takes student growth into account. Younger teachers understand this. They acknowledge that a contract that rewards longevity and credentials instead of effectiveness, while predictable and stable for employees, is not best for kids. The “New Majority” is ready to redefine and professionalize the teaching profession as respected, accountable deliverers of education. I just hope that veterans join the fight sooner rather than later.

Why Are People Opposed to Investment in Education?

Newark, New Jersey made headlines this past week when its teachers union agreed   to a new system of teacher compensation that would trade certain guaranteed salary increases for merit-based bonuses. The bold plan, backed by union President Joe Del Grosso as well as Governor Chris Christie, is funded by $50 million by the foundation started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

This sort of private investment in education has yielded substantial opposition. According to Diane Ravitch, the education philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is “inflicting incalculable damage on our public schools and on the education profession.”  (N.B. The Foundation’s stated  goal on their website is to make “sure high school students graduate ready for success and prepared to earn postsecondary degrees.” Sounds pretty malicious.) Especially at a time when school districts nationwide are forced to scour couches for leftover pennies, this opposition is illogical and unjustified. Even if every idea funded doesn’t work perfectly, private investment in education provides a great opportunity to encourage innovation and help kids. 

Given budget constraints, it isn’t surprising that school districts are reluctant to diverge from the status quo. Most of the billions we spend on education in this country are already allocated to contracts and other mandatory costs, leaving precious little discretionary funding. To put it bluntly, the money just isn’t there.

Private investment changes the equation. Districts such as Newark have the opportunity to experiment and explore to make the changes that their schools sorely need. Who are Ravitch and others to say that under-resourced districts desperately trying to stay afloat shouldn’t take money that is offered to them? It is traditionalist ideology extended to the absurd.

To be honest, I find it puzzling–and somewhat comical–that many of the same people that lament poor education funding are trying to stop private investment into education. Corporate conspiracy theories aside, I have trouble understanding why more money in education is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great sign that philanthropists and business leaders are finally acknowledging the urgency of creating an educational system that serves all students. I hope that other districts follow Newark’s lead and welcome outside investment as an opportunity for innovation.

The Misplaced Priority of “Save Our Schools”

One of the loudest voices in the current education reform debate–particularly on the Internet and social media– is the group Save Our Schools. Originally founded “to speak out against the attacks on public education and public school teachers,” the group has attracted a substantial following nationwide, including education celebrities such as Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. They are outspoken in their opposition to many educational reform proposals, including school choice, parent-trigger laws, and school and teacher accountability through testing.

I do not doubt the good intentions of the group and its members. But their stubborn adherence to a single means towards education–“traditional schools”–instead of a quality education in any form shows that the group’s stated desire to improve education for kids in this country is disingenuous. 

As I’ve argued in this space before, the reason that tax dollars fund schools is that our society rightly decided that education is a public responsibility; schools and school systems were established because they were believed to be the best means  to fulfill that responsibility. These “traditional” schools have been and continue to be successful in doing that for many kids.

But “many” kids is not all, as most prominently shown in our cities. It is only logical, then, to modify our means of fulfilling the public responsibility to educate. And that’s where Save Our Schools misses the mark.  Traditional schools exist as a means towards the end of quality of education; they have no inherent societal value, and so are only worth “saving” if they are the most efficient and effective way to educate kids. But if we can educate better by tweaking the model–or even jettisoning it altogether–we have a responsibility to do so. Any group unwilling to do that is not truly committed to fulfilling the public responsibility of education.

It is instructive–and somewhat amusing– that on their website Save Our Schools claims to be committed to goals that are literally opposites:”preserv[ing] and transform[ing] public education.” It reads like a tacit admission of how a priority of saving schools is not actually aligned with improving education in general. The group would be well-served by thinking beyond educational tradition and anachronism and actually consider why we have schools.