Hertzberg On Education

As usual, Hertzberg gives us the straight dope:
Size Matters

In the Times this morning, David Brooks writes:
As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.
I have to go with the teachers’ unions (boo!) and the Ed School establishment (hiss!) on this one.

Short of abolishing the whole crazy system of local school boards financed by local property taxes and replacing it with an all-powerful national Ministry of Education financed by the federal income tax, I’ve always believed that the best feasible “educational reform” is, precisely, smaller class sizes.

This is not hard to understand. Every teacher and every student knows that the smaller the class, the better the learning environment. Each kid gets more attention. Discipline and control are far easier to achieve. Disruptive kids have less scope for mischief. Teachers are happier and more likely to stay in the profession.

Moreover, class size is incredibly easy to measure. By contrast, measuring things like which teachers are good is extremely problematic. How do you measure which are the good teachers, short of placing a philosopher of education (or a senior fellow from the Heritage Foundation) in every schoolroom to take notes? Well, you can do it “subjectively,” by having principals or other authority figures make the evaluations, or you can do it “objectively,” by having kids take tests and comparing the results to I’m not sure what—last year’s results? how other, similarly situated kids are doing?

Either way, you’ve got problems. The subjective approach opens the door to favoritism, cronyism, and brownnosing. The objective approach means having lots of tests and teaching “to” them, with the inevitable accompanying distortions and creativity-crushing. “Accountability” may weed out very bad teachers, but it’ll also weed out very good ones, who’ll find lines of work that give their talents freer rein.

I’m not against merit pay or charter schools or accountability. Let a hundred flowers bloom. But the tools of national policy are imprecise. Making classes smaller is a totally clear goal, a totally measurable goal, and, conceptually, a totally achievable goal. The same cannot be said of fuzzier concepts like merit and accountability.

Of course, the problem with the class-size approach is that, as Brooks suggests, it costs money. You have to build more classrooms and hire more teachers. Still, at a time of crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment, and universal demands for more public spending, what’s wrong with that?
Hertzberg hits on the important point--imprecision! I have talked about imprecision before regarding academic language that ought to be used in elementary school, but is not in favor of things like Lucy Calkins and Everyday Math, programs that rename things we already have names for (check my labels for Lucy Calkins or Everyday math for more).

Of course Hertzberg is talking about something else when he talks about the imprecision of the tools of national policy; but the 2 notions abut. Imprecision is problematic, and the more we teach, or make policy without precision the wider the gaps (especially the achievement one) will gape.

Obama coined the phrase "silly season" and I think we ought to begin using it more. The Rhees and Kleins of the "reform movement" lack precision, and therefore target the fish in the barrel--the teachers. That just seems like silly season!

Listen to Rick, and me, and start thinking about how, precisely, you would like our youth to grow up: taught to take a test, or taught to understand and learn. Those are your stark choices. Be precise!

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