Education Opinion

Expert Witness

By Nancy Flanagan — March 02, 2011 4 min read
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Take a look at this brief clip of Davis Guggenheim, speaking to what must have been one of hundreds of audiences about the heartbreaking failure of public schools, and oh, coincidentally, some film he’s flacking. A woman in his audience asks how we can get rid of teacher unions--a logical question, since the theoretical framework of “Waiting for Superman” is that Unions Protect Bad Teachers Who Ruin Children’s Lives.

Guggenheim hesitates--then says that not all unions are bad. His union, for example, the Directors Guild, protects his important creative rights and his compensation. Growing more enthusiastic, he declares that the reason that teachers’ unions are bad is because they “make policy.” End of clip.

Perfect. Unions that protect the creative rights of rich people (through contractual policy), justified. Unions that protect the due process rights of teachers and aim to improve working conditions in those failing schools--greedy and damaging. And who says so? That well-known expert on labor and education policy, Davis Guggenheim.

Two days ago, another well-known expert on education policy, Bill Gates, was interviewed by NPR (also one of hundreds of media audiences eager for his wisdom) on the subject of class size. The interviewer asks Gates about schools where classrooms are packed with 35 to 40 children--how can that be acceptable? Gates says 40 is too many. But putting 30+ kids in front of a “excellent teacher?” Well, that could be one way to save money and improve education at the same time. Problem solved!

What makes Bill Gates an expert on education policy? Money, evidently. Every nonprofit, university--and union--in the country that needs Gates Foundation money is now willing say that he’s an expert. What I would like to do here is raise my hand and offer Mr. Gates my own considerable and real expertise on the issue of class size. What makes me an expert?

Well--in addition to 30 years of classroom experience, two degrees, National Board Certification and an array of teaching awards, I am certainly the only Education Week Teacher blogger whose average class size hovered around 65 kids. Middle school kids, no less.

As an instrumental music teacher, I commonly handled 70+ students per hour, and one year (a year I do not remember fondly), had 93 students in my first hour Symphonic Band. That’s right, 93 8th graders, all holding noisemakers, at 7:25 a.m.. When it comes to class size, I am a credible, expert witness--the ultimate cost-effective teacher. And here’s what I’d like Mr. Gates to know:

• The size of individual classes matters far less than total student load. It is more “efficient” for a teacher to lecture to large groups of students. But good teachers lecture infrequently, because students actually absorb knowledge through action and interaction. Simply listening to content is wildly inefficient, unless the student is able to apply the new knowledge--through discussion, re-framing, deconstructing concepts, answering questions, receiving feedback, producing documents or performance assessments.

• Therefore, relationships matter a great deal in learning. If learning were as simple as pouring knowledge into someone’s head, like the infamous cartoon figure in “Waiting for Superman,” then class sizes could balloon with no ill effect. But learning a complex skill-- like reading or equation-solving--hinges on small group interaction and guided practice. Students must be willing to try and fail, repeatedly, before approaching competence and mastery. Which also involves trust. Considering these facts, it’s no wonder that the research overwhelmingly indicates that small classes are most critical for very young children, and students who lack adequate attention from caring, competent adults.

• Many people assume that small classes mean fewer discipline problems for teachers. This is patently untrue. Every veteran teacher has had a small class that drove them to distraction--usually due to the mix of kids--and classes where there was barely room to move, but produced a reliable, dynamic learning buzz. The problem is not raw numbers--it’s the energy needed to build the human relationships that lead to lasting growth.

• There is no magic around the number 30, or 18 or 40, when it comes to class size (although I found it interesting that Gates stuck to numbers commonly found in schools and union contracts). Bumping class size limits up from 25 to 30, or 30 to 35--even if every single teacher were “effective” or “excellent” or whatever Bill Gates is calling them, and given a bonus--may save money, but would have little impact on actual learning. Good teachers would re-think their instructional strategies, further subdivide their attention and energy--and decide, in increasing numbers, that no amount of extra money is worth eroding their beliefs and their practice.

• In fact, insistence on standardized numbers is at the heart of what’s wrong in the class size debate. Gates is correct when he says parents would rather have their child in a class of 30 with a terrific teacher than in a class of 18 with a bad teacher (or novice, I would add, given the unequivocal data about the efficacy of first-year teachers). When union contracts prescribe one-size-fits-all numbers, they’re not taking into account teacher experience, student needs, or pedagogical and subject discipline considerations. They’re building walls against putting teachers and students in untenable situations. We can do better.

The class-size solution Bill Gates proposed for improving education is all about cash flow rather than investment in human capital. It does not address the most pressing need of education reform--the dangerous gap between the appalling schools we now have for kids who have no resources and the good schools we have for other children.

Just one more expert viewpoint.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.