The “New Normal” of Sec. Duncan

Secretary Duncan gave a speech last week that has surely ruffled many a-feather. While I certainly agree that this is a time to re-vamp our educational system, disrupt the current model and innovate, I do not agree with everything he had to say.

The first thing that is bothering me is his announcement that districts need to think about increasing class sizes. I have three problems with this and I will address them each separately.

(1) He claims that Japan and South Korea have larger class sizes and are far more successful than we are and therefore we should increase class sizes. This is not a logical argument. For one thing, the culture of asian countries is EXTREMELY different than the culture in the United States. Hello! How many times have you heard from your kids “oh yeah well _____ is asian so of course he/she makes good grades”. There isn’t anything biologically different between Asian students and American students (at least.. I don’t think there is), the difference is cultural! The majority of my Asian students have been instilled from a young age the value of hard work and education. Kudos to their parents! Shame on the rest of us. In any case – saying that because these countries do well with larger class sizes and then so should we is easier said than done. It would also involve a massive cultural shift here in the States. Additionally I have done a little reading myself and find that parents in these countries would prefer for their kids to be in small classes, but financially it isn’t viable for their governments. Many of us have also heard about the excellence of education offered in Finland – their classes are even smaller than ours… an average of 20 students per class! (let’s not even begin to talk about how much more the teachers get paid….)

(2) Secretary Duncan is listing this class size reduction as a part of a group of reforms to help schools deal with smaller school budgets, but contradictorily had this to say:

During a question and answer period, one teacher questioned that rationale [larger classes], saying that if she took on additional students, that’s asking her to do more for the same amount of money. Duncan said he’d like districts to consider reworking contracts so that effective teachers (particularly those who choose to work with more kids) can make a lot more money, say $80,000, or even $125,000. *

How on earth are districts going to be paying between double and triple the current salaries (depending on where you are from -i’m basing my projections off my own district) when we are discussing how we don’t have any money?! This doesn’t make any sense. Especially since in the same speech he was discussing class size increases to a mere 26… umm I don’t know about you but I would LOVE to have classes that small. My BIOLOGY classes were 38 kids each up until this about a week ago. Let’s not even talk about the safety issues that causes. Most classes are already very large and I dont see my district saying “Hey Adrianne… you know you have been dealing with ridiculously large class sizes, we are going to triple your salary”. Right. Also – what constitutes an “effective” teacher – one who has high standardized test scores? I think we all know how reliable a metric that is… (another post for another day)

(3) I have first hand (see above) experience with large class sizes (related to the mentality that if you teach Pre-AP you are teaching the “good” kids – that is a post for another day though) and I can tell you that I absolutely would not want that for my own children (whenever I decide to procreate that is). Even in classes with the “good kids” you have discipline issues – they are a chatty bunch those advanced students – and teachers just DO NOT have the time to assess understanding on an individual level and make sure everyone is keeping up. Also the load on the teachers to deal with the headache of keeping that many kids in line and the grading.. oh the grading… I don’t have enough time in the day to grade and provide the level of feedback that I feel is necessary to redirect and correct misconceptions, not if I want to have a life and spend time with my husband, and even if I didn’t I still wouldn’t have enough time to grade 178 student’s papers when we give assignments every day (and yet another post for another day).

The second thing I wanted to (briefly) discuss was his comment about not paying teacher’s with Master’s degrees more. Why shouldn’t we reward teachers for continuing their educations? Do we not want life-long learners in our classrooms? If you want talent you have to pay for it! Now I know that having a Master’s degree is no guarantee of teaching capability, but that is a separate issue. If a teacher sucks, then help them improve, and if they can’t or wont, then get rid of them. Having a higher degree means that you are (theoretically) more knowledgeable than someone without. And if we are going to go that route then why even hire a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree? Have any studies proved that Bachelors improve student achievement? Why not just stick someone in an alt. certification program, provide them with the text and send them on their way? You learn more about your subject from actually teaching it anyways. (Note: I am not advocating this). For an educational secretary he certainly doesn’t seem to value an education very much!

Sadly I feel that it is thoughts like this that are driving more and more potential teachers away from the profession because the opportunity to make more money and have less stress is increasingly being found in the private sector, not the public school system.

But enough about what I think, what do you think? I want to hear it all, agree or disagree. I’m admittedly not as well read on many of this as some of you are so I want to know!

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