Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Fake "Controversy" over Class Size

Anyone who has paid any attention to the headlines of late knows that there will be a lot fewer jobs for teachers in the near-term future than in the present. That, in turn, means overcrowded classrooms and increased workload for the educators who do still have jobs. While it is perhaps a useful palliative to note, as Jon Stewart does, the utter insanity of what seems to have become the Fox News mantra on the subject (the national GOP was initially rather slow to respond to Rupert Murdoch’s marching orders on the topic, but they seem to be up to speed now), the reality is bleak indeed.

NBC reports, for example, that in order to comply with a state directive, “Detroit will have to close 70 of its 142 schools, shut down most bus service and eliminate individual school principals in favor of principals in charge of school ‘regions.’ An announcement is expected in April on how many hundreds of teachers would be laid off.” An AOL report says New York City alone is looking at about 4500 teacher layoffs; Texas may lose 100,000 school workers. Yes, you read that right, 100,000.

Part of the problem, of course, is that states were allowed to paper over real budget problems with federal stimulus dollars. Our own Rick Perry, for example, nothing if not mendacious, did a masterful job of howling about stimulus spending while covering up his own incompetence and cronyism with precisely those federal funds. But then, thanks in large part to all the Republican baying at the moon, the stimulus money ran out, and states had to do in reality what they’d been pretending to do: actually balance the books.

It used to be that both political parties believed in education. Their priorities in terms of what programs merited support or where resources might best be allocated might have been different, but there was no question that the nations’ schools and public colleges and universities were a high priority for politicians of every ideological ilk. No more. The GOP has decided that the way to finance the obscene tax breaks demanded by their corporate masters for the wealthiest among us is to demonize, well, whoever happens to be in the way. This week it’s educators. But don’t worry, cops and firemen and nurses and toll-booth agents and secretaries in the DA’s office, your time will come.

The situation is aggravated by the usual cadre of nonsensical pseudo-experts. If, in other words, those who would slash funding for education would at least acknowledge the inevitable results of their actions, we might actually have a conversation. Whatever happened to those clichés about “mortgaging the future” that used to be as much a part of the rhetoric of the right as of the left?

Perhaps what I believe to be sacrificing an entire generation at the altar of the greed of a cabal of their elders really is the only way to prevent a greater disaster. (Perhaps Tony Hayward will win the Lifetime Achievement Award from Greenpeace, too…) But if the Scott Walkers and Michael Bloombergs of the world are unwilling to recognize reality, then we are truly lost.

It is reasonable for intelligent people to disagree about, say, the merits of a seniority system for teachers’ job security. Rational folks understand that the most experienced teachers aren’t necessarily the best ones, and that more money can be saved by laying off higher-salaried personnel than younger, (even) lower-paid staff. But they also have no trouble envisioning a scenario whereby, in the absence of an objective system, a principal or superintendent, neither of whom have the slightest idea what really goes on in a classroom, might use budget-cutting as a means of getting rid of that 30-year veteran teacher who not only sees but points out the flaws in the latest harebrained scheme that some other educationist who has never taught a class convinced them to implement.

What isn’t, or, rather, didn’t use to be, up for discussion is whether having 60 kids in a 3rd grade classroom is tenable. It is not. Next question. But the lobbyists and the politicos who are willing to abandon even a reasonable pretense of caring for the common weal as long as they get their tax cut, their no-bid contract, or their bridge to nowhere—these vermin have found willing allies in charlatans, intellectual whores, arrogant ideologues, and other “education experts” who are willing to say anything for a price.

One such person is Eric Hanushek, a Senior Fellow in Education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is, according to his short bio on that think-tank’s website, “best known for introducing rigorous economic analysis into educational policy deliberations.” It is at this point that people like me, people who have been in a classroom a few thousand times, roll their eyes skyward and sigh, “oh, one of those.” It’s not that fundamentally stupid right-wing arguments are any worse than fundamentally stupid left-wing arguments, but right now they’re far more likely to do significant quantitative and qualitative harm.

Anyway, faced not only with common sense but also with a host of actual studies including from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project of Health and Education Research Operative Services (those folks do like their acronyms), which spans over two decades and 11,500 students, and which concludes that “there's statistically significant evidence that smaller classes contribute to better grades, fewer discipline problems and higher enrollment in college,” Hanushek sniffed that whereas
your child could get better teaching and more attention in a small class…. The problem is the teachers don't change their behavior very much when you change the class size by a few children…. The evidence is very clear that the most important aspect of schools is having an effective teacher. An ineffective teacher is not helped by having a small class.
Really, that’s his argument. To be fair, his remarks may have been taken out of context (the name of Rehema Ellis, the lead reporter on this story, is seldom seen in the same sentence as the phrase “competent journalist” except by means of contrast), but if that’s really the best he’s got, the boy just needs to be slapped. Hard. Repeatedly.

Of course small classes don’t help bad teachers. But large classes hurt good ones. Put me one on one in a course on quantum mechanics, and I’m no damned good to anybody. But in a course I’m qualified to teach, there’s always an optimum number of students. In a college-level course which involves experiential interaction or simply group discussion, there’s often a critical mass of ten or a dozen students. Even assuming a low-enrollment class in such an area would “make,” it wouldn’t operate effectively: a beginning acting class with three or four students won’t operate as well as one with twelve students, especially if one of the enrollees is significantly more or less talented than his/her classmates.

But the real problem, obviously, comes in the other direction. That same acting course functions well at 16; the 17th and every additional student after that decreases the learning experience for all. The specific number I cite is from my own experience with that course; what matters isn’t that it might be 14 for someone and 20 for someone else, it’s that such a number exists, in very real terms, for every teacher, and for any acting course it’s well short of the 27 a former colleague found in one of her sections a few years ago. More to the point, that number is already being exceeded in a significant majority of public school classes: and that’s before the new draconian measures kick in.

Equally importantly, even classes that are currently being taught “well” would improve considerably with fewer students. It would be great to teach theatre history as more of a seminar, with close readings and discussion of texts, but with an average class size of 35, that’s not going to happen. I’d like to increase the minimum length of the research papers at the end of those courses by 25-50%, but with over 500 pages of student papers (plus final exams) to grade at the end of the semester already, adding to my workload is just an impossibility. I suspect that every teacher at every level has a similar story to tell about class size.

For all this, the corporate media is remarkably, offensively, timid. The NBC article cited above actually claims that “Research into whether smaller classes actually improve academic performance is extensive but contradictory.” No, it freaking isn’t. Even jackasses like Hanushek can’t bring themselves to say that; the best they can muster is “inconclusive,” which is still pretty much of a stretch. Indeed, if there’s anything you can take to the bank about improving educational quality, it’s that classes need to be smaller than they are. So people like Hanushek present us with a serious problem, to the extent that anyone pays them any mind. But we’re not quite sure what that problem is. It all depends on whether they actually believe the… erm… equine feces they’re spewing out.

1 comment:

Connie Kuntz said...

The cliche "mortgaging the future" has been replaced by the younger, newer cliche "educational revolution." Everything is labeled a "revolution" nowadays. Oh brother.