School & District Management Opinion

Bill Gates Inspires a Class Size Experiment in Kansas City

By Anthony Cody — August 22, 2011 2 min read
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A story broken by Parents Across America, and thus far not even covered by local newspapers, reveals that school administrators in Kansas City, Missouri, are introducing an unprecedented experiment. According to this story, contributed by a Kansas City teacher who has remained anonymous out of fear of retaliation, here is what is under way as the school year begins:

Last week at a school board meeting, Kansas City, MO School District superintendent John Covington told the school board that there is no research that supports reduced class size linked to increased student achievement. During the meeting, Covington cited the views of Bill Gates, who has minimized the importance of class size and suggested that teachers be paid more for teaching larger classes.
Covington went on to say that his staff had identified the "best" teachers in the district and would be giving them additional students. This was less than a week before school was scheduled to begin. The day after this announcement, teachers in the early grades received their class lists. Some first grade teachers were assigned 37 students per class, and some kindergarten teachers had 25-30 - compared to other teachers in the same schools, who had twenty students per class. Interestingly, some of these larger classes were staffed with brand new Teach for America recruits.
Then on August 19, Covington hosted a breakfast for eight elementary classroom teachers from about six schools out of 23, in grades 3-5th, whom he identified as "the best in the district." He did not explain how he determined that they were the best. He told them that if they were willing to take 6 to 8 additional students, he would give each of them $10,000. This would mean they would have class sizes in the mid to upper thirties. Superintendent Covington and his administrative team have taken the power of assigning teachers and children to classes away from school principals.

Last year Superintendent Covington introduced what he called a “Right Sizing plan” which closed 40% of the city’s schools and laid off 300 teachers. This was strongly supported by the Chamber of Commerce.

Covington is a product of the Broad Superintendents Academy.

Bill Gates wrote a commentary last March in which he argued:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to 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.

This appears to be the inspiration for Superintendent Covington’s experiment.

I wrote an open letter to Bill Gates at the time, which focused on the effect this is likely to have on teacher turnover. And I see from this report that some of these classes will be staffed by Teach For America interns, who turn over at even higher rates. But as Parents Across America points out, the chief concern this raises is the effect on children. There is extensive research showing that class size is one of the most basic things we can do to improve student outcomes.

The students and teachers of Kansas City are about to experience a large-scale experiment, testing a hypothesis that has already been proved wrong on so many counts.

  • Paying teachers bonuses does not make them more effective.
  • Paying bonuses to teachers you have somehow determined are more effective, then increasing their class size, is likely to greatly diminish their effectiveness.

Shifting critical decisions like the assignment of students and teachers away from the school site is likely to have terrible consequences, in that central District personnel are ill-equipped to make these decisions. This is also likely to undermine the authority of the principals, and decrease morale.

But these decisions are not so surprising when we have a system that, from the highest levels, declares schools failures in order to justify “dramatic” interventions. Not surprising, but nonetheless outrageous, when the education of our students is involved.

Here are some questions as we go forward:

  • Where has Bill Gates’ theory that we can increase class size in the classes of the “best” teachers been applied before? Where is there evidence that this will be good for children?
  • What will the District save by doing this?
  • How will this affect teacher turnover?
  • How will this affect the morale of teachers, students and site administrators?
  • How will this affect student achievement?
  • Does the Chamber of Commerce in Kansas City embrace this as they did the school closures last year?
  • Why are class sizes being increased for poor children in urban districts, while they remain low in the private schools attended by the children of people like Bill Gates?
  • Will local or national media report on this unprecedented experiment?

UPDATE: Superintendent John Covington has suddenly resigned amidst an acrimonious dispute with school board members. It is unclear how this will affect class size plans.

UPDATE #2: John Covington will be taking a new position in the state of Michigan overseeing the state takeover of high poverty schools.

UPDATE #3: From the Detroit News comes this story:

Detroit -- The new chancellor of a statewide school district for low-performing schools could earn more than $1.6 million over a four-year contract.
At the end of his second year and each successive year, Covington will be eligible for an incentive payment, tied to performance, from $50,000 to $100,000. After his second year, the contract also calls for unspecified annual salary increases.
Sara Wurfel, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said Covington would be paid with funding from a nonprofit. "Dr. Covington's salary will be covered through a 501c(3) entity with a mix of public dollars coupled with primarily foundation, individual and corporate donations," she said.

Any ideas about which non-profits will be picking up this tab?

(hat tip to the Schools Matter blog)

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