Joanne Jacobs chastises me for jumping on the class size bandwagon. I guess, if the bandwagon started in the 1990s. I wrote a paper in the late 90s that discussed the quantity v. quality problem with President Clinton’s class size reduction policy (I went to work for him anyway, I thought then, and now, that he was right about far more on education than wrong). As I noted in last week’s class size column at TIME the difference between then and now is that we know a great deal more about how class size policies play out in practice today – though you wouldn’t know that from the national debate. Even in the ’90s, though, it was understood that teacher effectiveness mattered more than class size, the Department of Education’s own literature review supporting the class size reduction policy noted this at the time and the Clinton policy was targeted in an effort to address that. Also, one aspect of this that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the idea of strategically lowering class sizes in key subjects, for instance English, to encourage more writing and critical discussion. In addition to smaller classes for academically at-risk students ideas like that make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, we’re not having that sort of conversation because of the back and forth and focus on across-the-board cuts or increases. To wit, class size jihadist Leonie Haimson told The New York Times the other day, “Unfortunately we’ve also seen the rise of a narrative that’s become dominant in education reform that insists that class size doesn’t matter.” Really? Who in the mainstream of the education debate is actually saying that?
Speaking of the 1990s and context, or lack thereof, it’s worth pointing out that test score fraud happened then, too. And before then as well. Yesterday’s USAT examination of the issue raised some important points – and a lot of this does go on – but it left out a little bit of context in terms of the longevity of the problem. This didn’t originate with No Child Left Behind (and the article did include some boilerplate hysterics about the No Child law’s consequences that really don’t reflect the actual policy). For example, here’s Historian Diane Ravitch in 1999 discussing a cheating scandal in New York City: ”To say that tests create cheating is wrong,” Dr. Ravitch said. ”What creates cheating is people who cheat. If we spent as much time teaching kids as showing them the answer, they might have learned to read.”
But, while this does go on, let’s hope examination of it doesn’t fuel the cynicism that seeks to debunk the results every time a teacher or school or school system accomplishes something extraordinary. That happens, too.