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Apr 11, 2008

Liberal Blogger Friday

Hi everyone, this is Nelson M. from The Liberal Journal. I want to thank BobO for extending the offer to have me post. I apologize in advance for the length.

I want to talk frankly about urban education. Recent reports have shown that the high school completion rate is as low as 25% in some cities. I can’t say I’m surprised. I worked briefly as a teacher in a New York City middle school in the South Bronx. It was a trying experience, but I saw just about everything one could imagine in my brief tenure save for a weaponized assault.

In our political discourse, we tend to talk about education at a macro level. We talk about how widespread the failure of many of our schools is, and then propose some quick and fancy-sounding reform. But to understand the education problem, it’s best to understand it at a micro level. If one of us sent our child to school, what would happen to him/her?

What I noticed was the importance of classroom dynamics. The class I was given was a witches brew. Other classes were not as bad, but the same situation exists. You will have a certain number of kids who will be “problems,” for lack of a better word. If you have one or two out of 30, count your lucky stars. My own classroom had a few kids with bona fide psychological problems, a couple with learning disabilities, a couple who didn’t speak English, and a few who were your run of the mill troublemakers. So out of a class of 30, at least about 10 were acting out every day. And when one of the 10 starts, the others 9 get in the act, and when those 10 are going, most of the 20 will get into the act, and it all goes out of control. And it was usually out of control.

This distribution may not have been representative of all urban classrooms. But I did notice a higher concentration of troubled kids across the board in NYC schools. This was already in a school system with about 100,000 children already segregated into Special Education environments--I think a lot of kids were labeled special education for just this purpose.

There are a lot of reasons for this high concentration. Many children don’t have either parent present much less one. Many children have abusive or neglectful parents. And the district I was in had a decent share of drugs and crime. So children walk into a classroom with a host of problems that an affluent school district typically doesn’t. Even a lot of the “good” kids I talk about dealt with these issues as well and rather than acting out simply withdrew mentally.

There were a host of other challenges which I could list, my own inexperience among them. But I know I could have succeeded despite teaching out of a cramped storage room, without textbooks except for Math, an almost completely inept and useless Administration, etc. if only the class was smaller. Give me 20 of those kids, even with 5 of the “special” cases, and it could have worked.

The number one thing I would have wanted was smaller class size matters, a lot of other teachers felt the same way. Instead of 4 teachers teaching classes of 30, you should have 6 teaching classes of 20. That’s point number one.

(What about just segregating the difficult kids? Well, as I said, that’s already being done to a good extent through the massive special education system. It’s a testament to the higher concentration of difficult cases. But suppose you also did that in the remaining general population. In both contexts, it’s like lighting a match on a barrel full of kerosene. You would be completely writing them off, at whatever grade level they’re presently at. There would be constant fighting, including injuries, all day every day in that class—just like a lot of special education environments with so-called “emotionally disturbed” students.)

What also matters is not just good teachers, but experienced teachers. The very best can handle almost any class dynamic. But they are few and far between. And we don’t pay them close to enough to retain them or attract more. They are invaluable and should be rewarded, and I probably depart with liberal orthodoxy in advocating merit pay for teachers. But I also think teachers across the board need to be paid more. It’s simple economics. How can you pay a starting teacher in the worst school districts 37K a year while a rich, comfortable suburb pays 60K? Where would you choose? (Those that do do it, usually do so out of a sense of charity/concern) Even if you equalized salaries, which would increase the cost of teacher salaries by 50%, most would still choose the comfy confines of the quiet suburb, where you don’t have to worry about, say, getting your car stolen or getting hurt breaking up a fight. So, if anything, you need to pay a lot more to attract teachers of merely equal quality.

There are a lot of other issues involved, clearly. Administration at all levels was poor for a number of reasons, including misplaced priorities. When high-level administrators would come by the school, their main concern was bulletin boards with recent work. As if that really proves a damn thing. It’s reminiscent of the emphasis on test scores. I don’t know of a teacher in these types of urban schools who thinks teaching to the test is an effective way of using class time. Except that’s a political mandate--the public wants to see the numbers. So we get testing as a poor proxy for accountability.

Some call for innovation through charter and voucher programs. Do they work? Studies by groups that support them argue they work, and studies by groups that don’t argue they don’t, and then there’s a bunch of studies which show mixed results.

The problem is they don't solve the problem of teaching this high concentration of troubled kids. If you have a voucher program for private schools, the private school is still going to be able to reject or limit who they take in, which leaves the large swath of urban youth who need even more attention stuck in the public schools. Again, think about the class dynamics. If of my class of 30 kids, 6 of the good students were absorbed into a private school, that still leaves a class of 24 children, about 10 of which are still difficult cases. The class size has been reduced but the percentage has become worse. The best thing for difficult students to adjust is to be overwhelmingly surrounded by good ones. But in this scenario, the difficult students are less isolated and will likely make it worse for the remaining 14 good students. (For example, think dividing kids up to do group work.) It’s theoretically better for six, but arguably worse for 24.

As for charter programs, the innovative techniques they promise only go so far, and some fare worse than standard publics. Now, there was a recent story of one charter school that was paying its teachers near 100K. When I heard that, I thought that might work. But even if it does, if you want to replicate any success from that situation, again you end up having to pay all teachers (even if they are new replacements) a bunch more.

My point is, you can’t replicate a model that works in most American villages and towns to our urban schools. You have a high concentration of troubled kids that have to be taught by someone. For teaching to be effective for both these kids and the others, you need high quality teachers and smaller class sizes. You have to hire more teachers for the new classes. You have to hire better teachers, maybe double spending on salaries and merit pay bonuses, and you might have to expand into new facilities. And I’ll throw in another thing. There needs to be better disciplinary systems in schools. My school of at least 500 had one person dedicated to discipline. You need to hire more of them, too. (Why shouldn’t this be the main tactic? Because it all starts in the classroom, and removing one kid at a time doesn’t drastically alter the overall dynamics—instead of 10 out of 30, you have to deal with 9 out of 29.)

It adds up to a massive amount of money. But on the ground level, it’s the only thing that I'm confident will counteract the terrible trends we’re witnessing. Maybe you can cut some of the bureaucratic overhead. Maybe you can find money in the system that’s being wasted. I don't really care for the bureaucracy, so you could pare that down if you want. Even then, you will still need more money and there has to be a willingness to spend more for teacher pay and class size. There’s a lot of political opposition to that. What often happens is that state legislators outside of the city run on not giving any more money to cities (even though a city might provide a disproportionate share of state revenues). But if we don’t make the adjustments I think are necessary, taxpayers statewide will eventually end up spending the money anyway – if these children fail, we spend money on the criminal justice system including building more prisons, and we lose tax revenue of people who would otherwise succeed and get jobs (or better paying ones than they otherwise would) and pay taxes of their own.

To conclude, it simply costs more to run a typical urban school, but everyone is trying to find a shortcut around that. There are none.


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