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| VIEWS | LIVING IN DIALOGUE
Dear Bill Gates,
I am writing to you because you have been getting a great deal of attention for your ideas about education, and from my perspective here on the ground in an impoverished urban district, I think you might be making some mistakes.
I read your recent commentary in The Washington Post, and reports from your presentation to governors, where you advised them to raise class sizes in the rooms of the most effective teachers.
“There are too many areas where the system fails. The place where you really see the inequity is the inner city,” you said.
You presumably were hoping to redress this inequity when you suggested: “Get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or ﬁve more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise.”
I am glad you are aware of the inequities.
But your suggestion that caps on class sizes be lifted does not suggest to me that you actually have much understanding of the nature of these inequities.
What is actually happening is that, with states making drastic budget cuts, there are going to be wholesale increases in class size across the board, for every teacher, at every grade level. In Oakland, Calif., principals have been told to prepare for cuts ranging from $300 to $900 per student. The only way to achieve such savings will be to lay off teachers and signiﬁcantly boost class sizes.
The teacher-turnover rate is one of the biggest problems we face in Oakland’s schools.
One of the most important working conditions, especially in high-poverty schools, is a small class size. As a middle school teacher, my student load was capped at 160 a day.
That meant about 32 students in each of my five classes. Just imagine 160 papers to grade every day, and you get a picture.
The quality of the attention we can give our students is diluted every time you add to that number. And if you are in a high-poverty school, the chances are pretty much 100 percent that in every class, you will have students who are currently experiencing traumatic events in their lives. These problems seep into the class-room, sometimes overtly, and sometimes through acting out, and larger class sizes make these behaviors even more difficult to handle.
This is not just my opinion. There is a large body of research that supports a strong link between class size and student achievement.
| VIEWS | ON PERFORMANCE
The anti-union turmoil in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey has many commentators wondering about the fate of public-sector unions. Teachers seem to be the primary target of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed changes in Wisconsin, but anti-union sentiment is on the rise across the board as private-sector workers question the compensation, benefits, and job security of public-sector workers.
While I am sympathetic to the cause of pro-teacher protesters, it’s wrongheaded to approach good pay and benefits for teachers as a “workers’ rights” issue. Educators are not “workers” in the traditional sense; we are professionals, and we can’t have it both ways. Either we act like professionals all the time, or we’ll be treated like “workers” all the time. We have to consider both the political climate and the evolving identity of our profession.
If teachers don’t like what they’re getting in one place, they can take their talents elsewhere. This should be the core argument of educators in Wisconsin, Indiana, and elsewhere: If we underpay teachers, they will leave, and they’ll be replaced by subpar people who have fewer options. The quality of our education system will suffer, and we’ll have to either pay much more to attract talent in the future, or we’ll have to pay the consequences of an inferior education system in the long run, such as higher rates of incarceration and unemployment.
I believe that educators should be paid well and treated well. But it’s critical to frame this as a human-capital issue, not a workers’-rights issue. The public is not sympathetic to workers’ rights, because everyone is a worker, and most people do not have nearly the level of “rights” that teachers and other unionized public-sector employees enjoy.
| NEWS | ON SPECIAL EDUCATION
For many of us, the ability to read is no longer the source of wonder. It’s what we read that makes the synapses fire.
While it’s no secret that people young and old struggle with this skill, and are therefore robbed of the inspiration, comfort, and excitement reading can bring, there’s another group of people for whom the physical act of reading is part of the challenge.
For 80 years, the blind and physically handicapped have been able to rely on talking books, a free service from the Library of Congress that was commemorated last week in Washington. (Perhaps it’s fitting that the anniversary of talking books comes a day after what would have been the 107th birthday of Dr. Seuss, who brought words to life in his own way.)
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has a collection of more than 400,000 books and provides free subscriptions to more than 40 magazines in audio format, plus 30 magazines in braille.
As Dr. Seuss found when he wrote “If I Ran the Zoo,” when you need something, like the ability to read when you can’t see the words, you can find a way.
Vol. 30, Issue 23, Page 11