Monday, February 23, 2009

Teacher Quality and Class Size

I have to go back to the Leonie Haimson well for this post. It's like I have all these thoughts incoherently wrestling with themselves. The price of aging brain cells. And then Leonie, like a cowboy with a rope, writes something that corals them into semi-rationality. I've been meaning to write about the heroic teacher concept you see plastered all over subway cars.

All you need is a quality teacher with proven high test score to handle this crowd.

Hey, I was one of these heroic teachers in my early years, devoting my entire life to the classroom. Then came the realization that there was a lot of socio-economic stuff going on - which led to the idea that becoming politically active was as important as the work I was doing in the classroom. But that's a story for another time.

In The myth of the great teacher, hopefully euthanized once and for all on the NYC Public School Parent blog, Leonie credits recent writings by Diane Ravitch and Skoolboy (Aaron Pallas) for taking apart those ridiculous Nicholas Kristof education columns.

Leonie sums up with
In fact, one study from San Diego cited by the report shows that “35 percent of teachers initially ranked in the top quintile remain there in the second year while 30 percent fall into the first or second quintiles of the quality distribution in year two. Apparently, even using different tests can affect the stability of estimated teacher effects.

Of course all the phony ed reform crowd cares about what can be measured like test scores. Read any teacher blog and you will see the ability to deal with kids' behavior effectively – and I mean going beyond simply controlling a class (some teachers I saw used to do it brutally) but with some level of humanity – is often considered by other teachers one of the highest levels of skills and probably a key indicator of teacher quality. But there is no way to measure this skill, so out the window it goes.

Now, this high level teaching skill is most affected by class size.

In the fall of 1979 we had three 6th grade classes, all with fairly low class sizes. As usual, they were grouped homogeneously. In my school traditionally, the administration (old hand teachers who rose through the ranks) made a conscious effort to keep class size in the more difficult classes to a lower number, enough of an incentive for some people to volunteer to take the position every year just for the low class size.

This policy changed in 1979 with a new test-driven politically appointed administrator with no teaching experience who ignored these finer points. But this was her first full year and she hadn't gotten total control yet.

Of course 30 years of fog clogs the brain but the numbers were from around 20 in the 6-3 class to about 27 in the 6-1. I had the 6-2 with around 22. The bottom class with the neediest kids was below 20. For all of us the situation was a unique opportunity and I would guess by any measure of Teacher Quality we were better than ever.

But being a doom and gloom guy, from the first day, I expected them to not allow this to continue and that they would cut one class. I had the lowest seniority, so I knew it would be mine.

The district made the decision to cut a position in December, of all times. The 3 classes were cut to 2 with each class having 35-37. (I had one student who 15 years later when she was a parent herself, used to complain about what happened - why did you get rid of me she used to cry?)

They took the top half reading scores and folded them into the top class, which turned heaven to purgatory. But for the teacher with the more difficult class, going from 19 kids to 35 was hell. But both of the teachers were extremely skilled in dealing with kids and they persevered.

I was placed in a special ed cluster position teaching 4 emotionally handicapped and one CRMD (mentally retarded class) a day. The class sizes were 10 with a para. It was my first experience with kids who could be so irrational or such slow learners, that someone like me with no training didn't have a clue how to teach. In the interest of full disclosure, I ended up there because the teacher with least seniority was bumped. (I know, I know, the attacks on union rules will be forthcoming but that I was an experienced teacher vs. a newbie even with training - I call it more than a wash.)

If someone checked my TQ factor they would have seen a serious drop from just a few weeks before. But being a prep coverage position, I was able to recoup after each class without too much damage and began to figure things out. The experience taught me that many of the techniques I had learned in over a decade of teaching needed modification.

Which goes to show that Teacher Quality is not an absolute, but a moving target that can change by the year, the month, the day, the hour. And in the 1979-80 school year, for me, by the minute.

I went racing back to regular ed the next year. It wasn't until the crack babies started filtering into regular ed a few years later that we all began to see that same irrationality of the kids. My 79-80 experience did make a difference.


Why Are People So Gullible About Miracle Cures in Education?The Miracle Teacher, Revisited

Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times.

My last post NY Times Ends Black Out on Class Size - Sort Of
David Pakter left a comment with a list of private school tuition in NYC where parents pay all that money for low class sizes. He also sent it to the NY Times.

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