Tuesday, January 22, 2019

LA strike tentatively settled with national implications; here's how to counter myths of the class size deniers

Today, it was announced that a deal has been struck between the Los Angeles teacher union and the district leadership, which will likely end the strike.  Here is my previous explanation of how the district's excessive class sizes were a central issue in the strike and central to the union's concerns.

Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti said, "This is a historic agreement, it gets to lower class sizes, it gets to support services.” According to the New York Times,  " the three men declined to give specific details, but said that the county and city would pay for some services and that class sizes would be reduced incrementally in every school starting next year."  More on the agreement here. The press conference announcing the deal is here.

Depending on the details, this looks like a terrific victory for the union and most importantly, for Los Angeles public school students.

Class size has once again become a focus of national attention as a result of the week-long strike. See for example, last Saturday's SNL segment, where Kenan Thompson one and half minutes in says, "Teachers don't gain paid enough, class sizes are too big". Or the photo posted a few days ago by Oscar-nominate actor Rami Malek  of his twin brother, Sami, an LAUSD teacher dressed as a cowboy, holding a sign saying "Wanted: smaller class sizes; Reward: higher student achievement."

Scores of teachers from around the country have been using social media over the last week to speaking out about how overly large classes have undermined their ability to reach their students. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a rumored candidate for President, just announced that he intends to introduce legislation soon that would "present a national plan for reinvesting in public education and reducing class sizes across America."

Merkley's office explained: "He’s seen up close the disturbing trend of disinvestment in public education and growing class sizes: His children attended the same public schools he did, but faced much larger class sizes and fewer elective options. We’re a wealthier nation than we were 40 years ago, so there’s no excuse for our public schools to be more poorly funded, or to offer less to low-income and working families."

Yet as time goes on and the issue gains more prominence, we can expect that the corporate reformers and their allies will start attacking efforts to reduce class size with everything they've got - tossing out various talking points in a desperate attempt to confuse and distract members of the public.

Most reasonable people will likely be sympathetic to the notion that kids learn best in small classes where they can receive sufficient feedback and support from their teachers,  and there's plenty of research to back that up.  But like climate deniers supported by the fossil fuel industry, there are plenty of class size deniers, often inside-the-beltway talking heads who have benefited from funding from Bill Gates or other ed tech billionaires, eager to have students taught by software in their preferred version of "personalized learning"  - or conservatives who  don't want more public money to be spent on public schools and would prefer to see them privatized instead.

Climate deniers at various times have claimed that  there is little research to show that climate change is caused by human activities releasing C02, or if it is, it's too expensive to reduce these emissions.  If pressed, they may then argue, even if we could afford to lower emissions by 10-20%, that wouldn't make enough difference, so why bother.

The arguments of the class size deniers generally run along the same lines:

1- There is little research to show that class size matters.
2- Even if research shows class size matters, it's too expensive to do anything about it.
3- With the following corollary: assuming we can afford to lower class size, reducing them by one or two students per class is unlikely to make any measurable improvement.

All of these assertions were made in an article this weekend on NPR, by reporter Kyle Stokes, who began his story by saying that "There are studies, if few and far-between, to support parents' and teachers' intuition that smaller classes are better for kids."  Umm, no.  There are a wealth of studies showing smaller class sizes provide a host of benefits to kids - check out this fact sheet for just some of them.

Then Stokes went on to say that even though there is research to show that lowering class size improves schools, he questioned whether it "produces enough benefits to be worth the price tag, especially when it comes at the expense of another program that might help high-needs students," though he failed to offer any evidence of specific alternatives that have been shown to provide more benefits.  On twitter, he added, "But even after $130M, most classes would still be in the 30's."  

Of course course class sizes of 30 or more are still too large - and should really be reduced to 20 or less.  But to use that argument against making any attempt to lower class size at all is like saying, since average temperatures of 100 degrees are already too high, there's no point in lowering them from 115 degrees.  In fact the research shows that the benefits of class size reduction are roughly linear - and that every student makes a difference in how many other kids in the class are able to succeed.

One of the DC talking heads Stokes interviewed is Matt Chingos, who has made a career out of arguing against lowering class size in schools.  He's written not one but two unconvincing reports with these claims.See his 2011 Brookings Institute report, for example, co-authored by Grover Whitehurst.  While citing several authoritative studies indicating that smaller classes result in more learning, they still argue that school spending on class size should instead be divertedto other programs with far less evidence behind them, such as "reconstituting the teacher workforce ....by substituting Teach for America teachers for new teachers from traditional training routes"; "enrolling students in popular charter schools in urban areas" and/or using more "computer-aided instruction." (Brookings had received a million dollars from the Gates Foundation the previous year, "to better assess the likely success of any strategy designed to improve the life prospects of children and youth." )

Chingos wrote another report for Center for American Progress, funded by the Gates Foundation, which straight out claimed, again without any evidence, that education funding would be better spent elsewhere.

To the contrary,  have been at least two peer-reviewed cost-benefit studies on class size, one by economist Alan Krueger, that in grades K-3, showing that "the benefits of reducing class size are estimated to be around twice the cost" with even greater benefits likely for poor kids and students of color, and another study analyzing students in the middle grades, that estimates that "in urban schools, the economic benefits from investing in smaller classes would be nearly twice the cost."

A few years ago I created a fact sheet that rebuts each of the favorite talking points of the class size deniers, called The seven myths of Class Size Reduction - and the Truth.  This was adapted from a Huffington Post article I wrote on the same topic.  Please download it and share it whenever the next Gates-funded corp reformer tries to argue otherwise. I predict that the more parents and teachers try to advocate for smaller classes in their schools, the more the class size deniers will  come out of the woodwork in attempt to block any attempts to provide simple equity and educational justice for public school students -- particularly in our highest need districts -- by reducing class size.

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