Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bloomberg administration blames parents for larger classes

See the article in today’s NY Times, Class Size in New York City Schools Rises, but the Impact is Debated, a follow up to the article on Wednesday, Class Size Makes Biggest Jump of Bloomberg Tenure.

Though it is one of those typical “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” pieces– citing research that is either outmoded or easily refuted -- it is important because it is the first in-depth article in our paper of record to have dealt with the issue of class size in at least five years.

Indeed, the Times has had a “black out” on class size through most of the Bloomberg administration – as the former education editor admitted in June of 2006 – though at that point, she promised “to explore the class size issue” soon after -- which has not occurred until now, almost three years later.

This omission has persisted, despite the fact that our public school students continue to suffer from the largest class sizes in the state, smaller classes have consistently been the top priority of NYC parents, and in subway and TV ads, the administration has claimed to be reducing class size while being repeatedly cited for misusing hundreds of millions of dollars of state aid meant for this purpose.

In today’s article, the administration once again tries to evade its own responsibility for failing to reduce class size, despite a state mandate passed in 2007. In the previous Times article, Garth Harries of DOE attempted to blame the economy– even though the state provided an additional $400 million this fall, with $150 million of that targeted for class size reduction. He also attempted to shift the blame onto principals, which Chris Cerf tries again in today’s article, without acknowledging that it is the DOE’s duty to see that these funds are spent appropriately.

But now, even more outrageously, they are trying to blame parents – with Harries actually arguing that large classes are the result of popular schools where parents insist on sending their kids.

As I pointed out to the reporter, the vast majority of children attend their neighborhood zoned elementary and middle schools– and DOE entirely controls the admissions for high schools, so blaming parents for the systemic problem of large classes is entirely unwarranted. Who will they blame next – our kids?

Indeed, at the same time that the administration goes around claiming that mayoral control means accountability, they are quick to shift the blame on everyone else when they fail to create more adequate and equitable learning conditions for our children.

The article also repeats the administration’s canard that there is a trade-off between teacher quality and class size, when the two factors are actually complimentary. Indeed, the main reason we have such a high teacher turnover rate here in NYC is that our teachers so often leave for a new profession or to work in suburban or private schools -- because their excessive class sizes do not provide them with a fair chance to succeed.

In a recent national poll, 97% of teachers responded that reducing class size would be an effective way to improve teacher quality – far above any other strategy, including raising salaries, instituting teacher performance pay, or providing more professional development. Indeed, the only way we will ever obtain a more experienced and effective teaching force here in NYC is by reducing class size.

But the most ridiculous part of the article is the “evidence” offered by the administration that smaller classes don’t matter, by referring to an unpublished (and probably unpublishable) internal DOE study that purported to show that the grades schools received on the “Progress reports” weren’t correlated with smaller classes. No mention is made of the fact that most experts have found that the grades schools receive are mostly random – with almost no correlation from one year to the next -- as an article by the same reporter in the Times pointed out last year.

In contrast, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Department of Education, has concluded that class size reduction is one of only four, evidence-based reforms proven to increase student achievement. (None of the policies that the Bloomberg/Klein administration has introduced are on the list, by the way.)

In fact, the DOE has devised another formula – a “value added” model to evaluate teacher effectiveness, in which class size is included as a “predictor”, the ONLY factor included in the model under the school system’s control. This is an admission that the larger the class, the less a teacher is expected to raise student achievement. All the other factors in the model pertain to characteristics of the students themselves, such as economic status, prior test scores, absences, etc.

See the model here – which includes average class size at both the classroom and school level, showing that both should be taken into account when assessing a teacher’s performance. The DOE also states that the model used “draws on 10 years of city-wide data (test scores, student, teacher, and school characteristics) to predict individual student gains.”

Check out the accompanying FAQ:

Is the DOE’s Value-Added model reliable and valid? A: A panel of technical experts has approved the DOE’s value-added methodology. The DOE’s model has met recognized standards for demonstrating validity and reliability. Teachers’ value-added scores from the model are positively correlated with both School Progress Report scores and principals’ perceptions of teachers’ effectiveness, as measured by a research study conducted during the pilot of this initiative.

Anyway, please send a letter to the Times at with your name, address and phone number. Let them know what you think – and whether it’s fair to blame parents for the fact that NYC classes have remained the largest in the state, with no significant improvement under this administration.

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