Education Letter to the Editor


February 01, 1999 4 min read

Sizing Them Up

There are at least three major problems with the analysis of class-size reduction efforts offered by Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli (“One Size Does Not Fit All,” January). First, Finn and Petrilli are naïve to accept as fact the commonly quoted statistic that the average class size nationally is 22 kids. Elementary teachers working with 30 or 40 kids and secondary teachers facing daily loads of 180 to 200 students have heard this kind of tripe from myopic foundation thinkers for years. In reality, a class of 22 would seem miraculous in my daughter’s 3rd grade or in most classrooms across my state. Politicians, district-level administrators, and so-called school reform experts need to learn how to count before they make the claim that class-size reduction doesn’t make a difference in achievement.

Second, Finn and Petrilli criticize mandated class-size reduction because of “unintended consequences.” Yet they ignore other state and federal mandates that shackle our public schools in far more serious and damaging ways. It might be interesting to find out the real reasons all those veteran teachers opted out of California’s inner-city schools for the “cushy” suburbs.

Finally, the writers claim that there is no evidence that cutting class size leads to increased achievement. Yet they ignore substantial evidence from the STAR study and other research, and they fail to recognize that small classes are at the core of our best private schools. During one semester, when I was teaching an inner-city public high school literature class of 42 kids, I visited a colleague teaching the same subject in a prestigious private high school. “This class is too big,” she told me as the bell rang. I could only shake my head in agreement as all 17 of her students entered the room.

Michael Thompson
St. Paul, Minnesota


Thank you for shedding some light on the controversy over the Massachusetts teacher test. (“Crash Test Dummies,” January.) Until now, much of what the country has learned about this flap has come from John Silber’s scathing commentary printed in newspapers nationwide. Yet it seems that Silber and other state officials are not interested in working cooperatively with schools of education to improve teacher training. If they were, results from questionable tests like Massachusetts’ would not be used to attack college education majors. Silber claims that high school graduates could pass the test, yet no high school students took the test. He also claims that the test exposes the “derisory” standards of colleges of education. Yet only education majors took the test; if students pursuing other majors took the test as well, many of them might fail, too.

Like many people, I am puzzled as to why dictation is included in the test. Moreover, the Federalist papers are a curious selection for dictation. Silber’s harping on some misspellings from this section of the test illustrates his agenda: He will nit-pick until he finds “proof” of teacher incompetence.

It is ironic that politicians, bureaucrats, and newspaper editorial writers who clamor for more testing do not have to take tests for the positions they hold. It is truly sad that these are the very people passing judgment on teacher quality and setting the standard for future teachers. If these folks would spend a little time in the schools and observe excellent teaching--or try to teach themselves-- perhaps they would stop bashing colleges of education and instead help them prepare teachers to meet the demands of the modern classroom.

John Snyder
Associate Director
Office of Career Services
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania

Rock On

Re: “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Teacher” (January). At age 19, after losing money on a Jan and Dean concert, I bailed out of the rock ‘n’ roll industry to go to college, where I started a band called the Tappa Keggmen. We once sang “Twist and Shout” for 13 hours.

When I was a teacher at St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland in the late ‘60s, rock promoter Bill Graham sent groups to my summer dances--Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Youngbloods, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. My songwriting workshop made 45-rpm records, but the music ended in 1970 when I took a busload of students to the Stones’ Altamount concert to sell sodas. One kid almost overdosed on reds.

By the early ‘70s, I had my first article published in Rolling Stone. By the end of the ‘70s, I was again recording students, this time at Castlemont High in Oakland. During the ‘80s, I took a group of Lowell Middle School students into the studio to record “Word Rap,” which I wrote and they rapped. I recorded my own album, “Mindworker,” and the title song has been anthologized on Joe Glazer’s collection of labor songs.

Now, at Oakland High, after reading Hamlet, I sing my originals like, “Get Thee to a Nunnery.” In my 32 years as a teacher, the only time I’ve ever received a standing ovation from hundreds of screaming students was when I imitated Elvis at the school talent show. I’m glad I gave up rock ‘n’ roll for teaching; otherwise, I might have ended up like so many of my contemporaries--dead. It’s good to be alive--and to be hailed by my students as the world’s oldest undiscovered rock ‘n’ roll star.

Paul August
Oakland High School
Oakland, California

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Letters