Saturday, August 2, 2008

Response to Mike Petrilli on technology and class size

Mike Petrilli, via Diane Ravitch, responded to my earlier comments on his post on moving beyond the debate on "teacher quality" this way:

I appreciate the feedback on my article, and am glad it resonates with many of you in NYC. As promised at the end of my piece, I'll flesh out my ideas for making average teachers into effective teachers in a future column. But yes, I think that technology-someday at least-will have the potential to help do exactly that. (Programs like where I used to work- are already making average Moms and Dads into effective teachers.) So will a strong core curriculum. But I'm very skeptical about reducing class size as a viable solution. Of course it's popular with teachers (which is all the Public Agenda data can show), but the most rigorous studies demonstrate that class size has to be reduced dramatically in order to make a difference, and even then there's only strong evidence that it matters in the early elementary grades. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been reducing class size across the board for decades, which only makes the teacher quality challenge greater.

My boss, Checker Finn, once estimated that if the teacher ranks had grown proportionately with the student population since the 1950s, rather than at three times the rate, we could afford to pay the average teacher $100,000. Instead we've opted, as a country, to hire lots more teachers at lower salaries. Maybe that wasn't the best choice.

My response is as follows:

Michael: Urban high-needs school districts with large numbers of minority students still have far larger class sizes on average than the average middle-class or wealthy suburban school district, and of course any of the elite private schools. See the belwo chart from ETS, for example, in a report called "Parsing the Achievement Gap."

And while there has been a big change in the teacher/student ratio, much of that has gone to intervention specialists, pull out teachers, push-in teachers, etc. but not nearly enough to lower class size.

If we're serious about improving achievement and narrowing the achievement gap we need to prove it by creating the same opportunities that people with means demand for their own kids -- especially as the research shows that it is poor minority kids who benefit from smaller classes the most. Otherwise, there is a strong whiff of hypocrisy about the whole debate.

The Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Dept. of Education, concluded that class size reduction as one of only four, evidence-based educational reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments -- the "gold standard" of research. More technology is not included among them.

This combined with the fact that actual practitioners in the field, including teachers and principals, overwhelming respond that class size reduction would be the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching, makes it hard to understand why there continues to be so much intellectual effort expended in combating any attempts to achieve this.

I liked what you started to move towards in your comments on teacher quality -- and I loved your recent column on the importance of extra-curricular activities in educating students and expanding their leadership skills. (For more data to back up your argument there, see two Mathematica reports, "Expanding Beyond Academics: Who Benefits and How?" and "Valuing Student Competencies: Which Ones Predict Postsecondary Educational Attainment and Earnings, and for Whom?" both coincidentally co-authored by my brother.)

But if we really want to make teachers more effective, we should start listening to what they say will work best, rather than imagining that somehow we know better.

Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters

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