Public school experts

Do only those within the Kansas public schooling community have a say?

In a letter to the Wichita Eagle, a longtime educator asks “Just how much confidence in the schooling community should taxpayers embrace?”1

The answer should be: Some.

The author’s primary topic in this letter was school funding. He writes that public school educators are best qualified to decide school funding issues, and we should trust their judgment.

The problem is that public school educators have a self-interest in this matter that goes beyond the achievement of Kansas schoolchildren. Teachers complain that class sizes are too large. At what level would teachers agree that their classes are not oversized? When making that decision, do they weigh the much larger expenditures that will be required to reduce class sizes substantially?

The success of class size reduction has a mixed record. For example, when the Brookings Institution surveyed the literature, it came to this conclusion: “Class-size reduction has been shown to work for some students in some grades in some states and countries, but its impact has been found to be mixed or not discernable in other settings and circumstances that seem similar. It is very expensive.”2

More importantly, do educators consider that smaller class sizes mean more teachers, and that if school districts have hired the best teachers first, then any additional teachers hired must be (by definition) less qualified than current teachers? This is important because teacher quality is known to be — by far — the largest factor in student achievement.3

Small classes are good. Most people like personalized attention. But teacher quality really matters:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.4

Wichita school district student-teacher ratios. While not the same measure as class size, these ratios have generally improved or remained constant.
Wichita school district student-teacher ratios. While not the same measure as class size, these ratios have generally improved or remained constant.

Despite this, our state’s public school establishment tells us that we must have smaller classes.

Besides the obvious self-interest of public school educators, there is also this: They have lied to us. Blatantly. For years our state’s education leaders have told us that Kansas schoolchildren score well on the state’s achievements test. This should be good news, but the Kansas tests were much less stringent that other states’ test. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, has published many studies over the years that documented the weakness of the Kansas assessments. For some years, only a handful of states had standards weaker than ours.5 6

Finally, last year Kansas adopted realistic standards. A presentation by the Kansas State Department of Education to the Kansas State Board of Education explained the relationship of the new standards to the former: “The Kansas College and Career Ready Standards are more rigorous than the previous Kansas Standards.”7

This admission came, however, after many years of telling us Kansas students were among the nations’ best. But Kansas students were taking easier tests.

Undoubtedly those who work in our public schools have much knowledge about their operation and what needs to be fixed. But they have an obvious self-interest, and we need others to look at schools, too.


Notes

  1. John H. Wilson. Trust judgment of school educators. Wichita Eagle, October 6, 2016. Available here.
  2. Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos. Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy. Brookings Instutition. Available at http://www.brookings.edu/research/class-size-what-research-says-and-what-it-means-for-state-policy/.
  3. “For instance, the median finding across 10 studies of teacher effectiveness estimates that a teacher who is one standard deviation above the average in terms of quality produces additional learning gains for students of 0.12 standard deviations in reading and 0.14 standard deviations in math.” Dan Goldhaber. In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most. EducationNext. Available at educationnext.org/in-schools-teacher-quality-matters-most-coleman/.
  4. Gladwell, Malcolm. *Most Likely to Succeed.* Available at www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/12/15/most-likely-to-succeed-malcolm-gladwell.
  5. Weeks, Bob. Kansas school standards evaluated. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-school-standards-evaluated/.
  6. Weeks, Bob. Kansas school standards found lower than in most states. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-school-standards-found-lower-than-in-most-states/.
  7. Weeks, Bob. After years of low standards, Kansas schools adopt truthful standards. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/after-years-of-low-standards-kansas-schools-adopt-truthful-standards/.

One thought on “Public school experts”

  1. Thank you for this viewpoint. It is important because the same reasoning can and should be applied to other areas of public policy. For instance, judicial selection. Yes, we can and should have input from lawyers–but they should not have too much control over who is a judge. Healthcare–yes, we can and should have input from physicians on healthcare policy, but they should not have too much control. Roads. Yes, construction companies can and should have input on road project policy, but not too much control. On a broader, global scale, we don’t let our military generals decide if we go to war–that is a larger discussion that should include ALL of us. The list is virtually endless.

    Should “professional educators” have input on education policy and funding? yes. But “professional educators” is a broad category–what about home school parent-teachers, charter school advocates, private school experts? Are they not also “professional educators?”

    Finally, one might ask the key question: “What is the mission?”

    This question applies to education and other areas of public policy debate and discussion. What are we trying to accomplish. For instance, teacher union leaders have at the top of their “mission list” the welfare and benefits of the teacher–as it should be. This is related to, but different than, the overall mission of education and the academic achievement of individual students.

    Thoughts to consider.

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