Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bill Cala on Class Size...and Bloomberg's Reps Too

Any one who claims that class size doesn’t make a difference has not been in a classroom in the past 20 years.

- Bill Cala, most recently interim Superintendent of the Rochester School District in New York and a long-time Superintendent of three school districts, now retired.

I met Bill Cala and his wife Joanne in March, 2003 at an ACT NOW conference at the WOO (World of Opportunity) in Birmingham, Al., hosted by the late, great Steve Orel. With a cast of Susan Ohanian, Juanita Doyon, John Lawhead, and twenty other education activists from around the nation, that was one hell of a two days of intensive discussion on NCLB, high stakes tests and general education issues. Quite a few bonds were formed, especially at the anti-war vigil in downtown Birmingham, followed by a communal dinner.

I was shocked when I discovered that Bill was a school Superintendent in Fairport in upstate New York, the third district he has run. How could I be on the same page on so many issues with someone who runs a school district? Besides, he was a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with. Nowhere near the Supes I had run across in NYC.

We kept in touch and on a visit to NYC, he invited me to a meeting at the Urban Academy at the Julia Richman Educational Complex. That was the first time I met Ann Cook (co-director of the school and one of the true heroes of education) and the amazing Jane Hirschman (Time Out From Testing).

Bill retired from the Fairport school district a few years ago and he and Joanne started Joining Hearts and Hands, which promotes improved educational, health and economic conditions for African orphans and their communities by building schools, sponsoring health clinics, providing secondary scholarships, and nurturing sustainable development initiatives – all to promote dignity, opportunity and hope.

While I was sure of where Bill stood on class size, it is one thing to be use rhetoric (see one Randi Weingarten) and another to deliver when you have the power in your hands to do so.

Here is Bill's own words on class size:

While superintendent of Fairport, I initiated a long-term plan to reduce all primary classes to no higher than 17. For the most part, we accomplished that goal, reducing class sizes to that level K-3. In fact, in order to put meat on the bone, I had the board adopt a policy to that effect. In the intermediate, middle and high school grades, I brought class size down to the lowest levels in the school district’s history.

Any one who claims that class size doesn’t make a difference has not been in a classroom in the past 20 years.

Why do I bring up Bill's views on class size now?

Because on Nov. 19, I attended a panel on mayoral control at the Wagner School at NYU with

  • Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters
  • Richard Kessler, Executive Director, The Center for Arts Education
  • Lesley Redwine, Director Of External Relations, Achievement First
  • Fatima Shama, Senior Education Policy Advisor, NYC Office of the Mayor

Shama was a last minute replacement for the Tweed rep, Emily Weiss, who pulled out after hearing Leonie would be on the panel. (Tweedies are not good at actually having to face people who have real data.)

Shama was pretty smooth with the usual claptrap coming from the mayor's office on education. You know how closing the achievement gap is an ethical issue and inequality must be blah, blah, blah, blah.

So I asked her how come it wasn' t an ethical and equality issue for NYC students to have 25% higher class sizes than the rest of the state? Why the poorest kids in urban areas, who just happened to be mostly people of color, don't deserve equality with the richer kids? Why isn't this the civil rights issue of our time?

Shama's response was - now hold your breaths kiddies - was that class size doesn't matter.

The ideal class size in Bloomberg land.

There was an audible gaps from the audience of mostly education students about to become teachers (but maybe not in NYC now that they know the official policy.) Redwine, was quick to jump in and agree with Shama.

Now there's a pair for you.

For my money, Leonie kicked their butts all over the place.


  1. I think your post, and the comment from Bill Cala, misses the point.

    Of course class size matters -- all else equal, a smaller class size will improve results... but all else is never equal, and specifically, if you believe that high quality teachers -- especially ones who are effective with kids from low income urban communities -- are in short supply, the relevant question is NOT does class size matter, but does it matter more than other things... like having an outstanding teacher in the classroom.

    Smaller class sizes require more teachers... and if great teachers are in short supply, it could also mean that fewer kids end up with a great teacher.

    Ask any parent who has ever gone to the mat to get their kid into the 'great' teacher's class, even when that class has got far more kids than another teacher's class - they're essentially betting that a great teacher is more important than a small class size... which is not such a crazy idea.

  2. Poor DCB having to use the same script over and over again. Let's go out and find 70,000 great teachers in high class sizes in the NYC school system. They're all just dying to teach under those conditions. You must be living in munchkinland. Check the attrition rate sometime.

    Why not first ask why there is no similar call for quality bankers or financers or auto industry execs before handing them almost A TRILLION DOLLARS while you cry about the fraction of these costs to give the poorest kids in the nation the same basic right to small class sizes as the wealthy get?


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