Sunday, March 30, 2008

AERAPLANING - Don' Need No Stinkin' Research tell me lower class sizes benefit kids.

On Tuesday, after De-Kleining Joel Klein, I headed over to the Sheraton with Sol Stern to pick up a press pass (I left out in that post that Sol was mad at me for repeating something he said in an email) for AERA (American Education Research Association) which supposedly has 16,000 people attending. I was thinking of hanging around for Diane Ravitch's presentation later that afternoon, but headed for a movie and then home to do get in some late-afternoon gardening. Reading Eduwonkette's report on Diane's presentation made me sorry I didn't stay. I wonder if 'Wonkette was wearing her mask? (How about an Eduwonkette scavenger hunt?)

Thursday, I bit the bullet and headed for AERA for the entire day, carrying the 500 page AERA guide, Kahlenberg's "Tough Liberal" and Podair's book on the '68 strike to entertain myself between workshops. As a quasi educator/blogger/reporter/ed commentator I was interested in this mouthful: Disseminating Education Research Through Electronic Media: Advice from E-Journalists.

The participants were: ed commentators and bloggers Alexander Russo (This Week in Education), Andrew Rotherham (the Ed Sector and Eduwonk), the more traditional educational journalist, Jennifer Medina from the NY Times, and Richard Colvin of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Eduwonkette asked me to cover this for her and I sent stuff over for her AERA quotes of the day. There wasn't a food fight between Rotherham and Russo – that will go on at their blogs. Is the day coming when you can throw a pie in someone's face through the computer screen?

I was interested in raising some issues related to the coverage of events in NYC, especially by the NY Times which is viewed by so many as biased for BloomKlein but wasn't sure how to raise it. I've actually seen a slightly more nuanced tone in Medina's reporting but there's so much the Times leaves uncovered. I was surprised when she said there were 11 education reporters at the Times.

You can read about the serious aspects of the session in terms of researchers and journalists (the E and traditional kind) at their blogs.
Russo reports on the session here.
Rotherham's account is here.
Moderator Paul Allen Baker's report here.

I wanted to get a few points in regarding the absence of the classroom teacher voice and how class size is addressed in terms of research.

So I made the statement about not needing stinkin' research in the context of the argument the anti-class size reduction people make that we can't lower class size until we have a quality teacher available and that resources would be better spent in recruiting and training better teachers. That reporters repeat that all the time. Less kids = lift all teachers quality is so obvious.

I said, how come the same questions are not raised about the medical field: we don't refuse to put more doctors and nurses in hospitals because some of them will not be high quality. (Did you know how many practicing doctors have not passed their certification boards?) The legal field – do we ban the guys who can't run fast enough to catch up to the ambulance? The financial field?Hoo , ha! Judges? Politicians? The ones who have the most number of affairs are the lowest quality. Or the highest. Or better yet, take NYC education journalists. Do you see a difference in quality? If you can't keep up with Elizabeth Green, you can't write a story.

Of course this comparison was totally ignored. This is about education, not the rest of the world.

How come the focus on teacher quality to the exclusion of other areas of society. Actually, I got a lot of the answers at Lois Weiner's session on Saturday about the world-wide neo-liberal attack on teachers and their unions (see Lois at the April 15 Teachers Unite forum) but will post on that soon.

What ed journalist do is narrow-casting. Like there was a UFT/coalition rally to restore budget cuts while down the street the fed was coming up with $200 billion and no one made the ironic connection.

Or report that class size research is inconclusive and ignore the fact that parents spend #30,000 for private school and parents in rich areas like Scarsdale pay so much for small class sizes.

I got a rather heated response from Richard Colvin (did I detect a note of hostility when I ran into him in the press room later?), who said just because people in Scarsdale drive a Mercedes, it doesn't mean we all have to when cheaper alternatives are available - that the best uses of resources in resource-starved urban schools may not be to reduce class size. He didn't quite say that the better use was to recruit quality teachers, but he may have been thinking it.

I didn't get a chance to say it but I guess urban kids never get to ride in the Mercedes unless they do the drug thing. What I would have said: How about giving kids in a few places the Mercedes just to see if it works. Like, instead of closing down one high school and loading it up with multiple small schools (sure, that's certainly more cost effective), try doubling the staff for a few years and see what impact that had. Why don't class size researchers suggest that as a test? Or ed reporters? Like I said, narrow casting.

Rotherham pointed to the USA Today article on class size on Monday which made an interesting observation:

Small classes work for children, but that's less because of how teachers teach than because of what students feel they can do: Get more face time with their teacher, for instance, or work in small groups with classmates... researchers closely watched students' behaviors in 10-second intervals throughout class periods and found that in smaller classes in both elementary and high school, students stayed more focused and misbehaved less. They also had more direct interactions with teachers and worked more in small groups rather than by themselves.

Duhhh! That's the point. Reducing class size from, say 30 to 20 may not lead to drastic change in teaching styles (again, what exactly are they doing in the private schools and the rich suburban districts with their lower class size - it would have been interesting if reporters and researchers reported on that) but why is that the crucial thing at this point. The USA article stated, "teachers didn't necessarily take advantage of the smaller classes, often teaching as if in front of a larger group." Of course idiot anti-teacher propagandists who claim to be teachers turn that statement into this: "The solution is not to reduce class size and thus have to hire more bad teachers, but to keep classes big, within reason, and to focus more on hiring and training good teachers."

Typical sophistry from the right wing - turning "teachers who still teach to large groups" into "bad" teachers. Like if it were a given that class sizes would be under 20, teachers would be trained to work in that environment instead of training to manage a herd.

The other point I made was how the voices of classroom teachers, the actual people who have to implement all this crap, never seem to be heard in these debates. I could almost hear a collective regurgitation at the mention of "classroom teachers." Rotherham's comment was that his survey of 1000 teachers show they are not much aware of policy issues. So what? Guess he isn't reading some of amazing NYC Teacher blogs out there.

Medina said something about 6 people talking to each other. Maybe so, but each of these 6 people work in a school and talk to people at the job. So for each blogger and their commenters, there is a multiplier effect.

But most egregiously, she said she'd love to talk to teachers but they don't want to talk to the press. Hmmm! Maybe not about an expose at their school, but about policy? I know so many people who won't keep their mouths shut. If there are any teachers out there who have gotten a request from an ed reporter at the NY Times for an opinion on DOE policy, please let me know.

I bet some in this crowd, as much of society, gag at the idea of hearing teacher voices. Read Frank McCourt's wonderful Teacher Man for a view of how low down society looks at teachers. He spent 30 years in the classroom but it took writing a best seller to be heard.

At least he taught high school. When I told the crowd I taught elementary school, you might as well have read the bubbles over their heads saying, "Those that can do, those that can't teach, especially elementary school."


Anonymous said...

Ms Medina: here's my email address: Would love to talk to you, any time, any place.

Dr Pezz said...

My department finally got our superintendent to look at lowering class sizes at the high school to help with the failure (from 32 to 28, a small start but a start) when our principal said we should lower class sizes only after we solve the failure rate. Grrrr! She missed the point entirely.

Every time I've had fewer than 25 in my English composition classes, the success rate has skyrocketed to a near perfect passage rate.

Socratic Method said...

Why not give some kids the Mercedes? Well, New Jersey gave their urban districts enough money for a fleet of Mercedeses many years ago (more than $20,000/student), and those districts have seen absolutely no improvement. They lowered class sizes, bought into whole-school reform models, and accessed some of the nation's best consultants, and still there was no improvement. Money is not the answer; a mindset shift away from excuse-making is.

ed notes online said...

Another load of bullshit from you. Yesterday's class size symposium at Teachers College had so much data proving the impact of class size reduction on poor urban kids especially that even DOE's Garth Harries sat there in stunned disbelief -- but he recovered enough to throw the same bull. The Tn. studies were the gold standard in research and they also looked at Teacher quality. So go read that (when you are finished teaching your classes - heh, heh).

Anonymous said...

Really? The TC symposium talked about the example I cited? Look at the results in NJ - the big-city districts are still terrible despite tons of money and small classes. The California studies are also clear - lowering class size requires more teachers, which requires the hiring of more bad teachers, which is bad for outcomes.

Looking at studies that just say that teacher X is better if s/he has a smaller class is only addressing half the issue. OF COURSE it's easier to teach small classes, but we don't lower class size in a vacuum - it demands that we find more good teachers. Considering the dearth of talent that currently characterizes our profession, that's no small issue.

Anonymous said...

Before seeing the results of the hard research as I did yesterday, I might have laid off. I'm officially prepared to call you a liar or at the very least a distorter and a propagandist.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's a Jersey study about class size, but your commenter is referring to the Abbott decision which channeled large amounts of money to ~30 NJ districts. I haven't seen any evaluations, but my general sense is that it has improved both conditions and scores.