Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Vivid Descriptions and Big Tents: Breaking Down the Claim for Fewer Teachers


An analysis of the most recent attack on teachers -- that there are just too many of them.


for those of you who have watched the new Jen and JD Show or followed the blog/twitter, you'll know that a recurring theme in my thought process is my slightly shocked reaction to the attack on teachers in recent years. Given that teachers are not a strong political group, that the unions in general have lost their power, and that ready-made scapegoats are much easier to attack than issues like poverty or cycles of illiteracy, it should not be surprising that sound-byte culture has taken the stance that teachers are to blame. It is slightly more frustrating that both big-tent political parties have taken this position to some extent by placing faith in high-stakes tests and business-centered competition rhetoric, but we are past the stage where we can look to any political party to speak out in the name of educators.


So it falls to educators to call "foul" and get the word out.


This is not going to be an easy task. The news is not going to cover it. The sunday morning talk shows don't have a place for an educator's voice (although they seem to always have seats for multimillionare businessmen), and the most powerful bully pulpits are reserved for talks about "filling in ovals completely and dark" as the pathway to educational heights of performance ecstasy.


So let's take the arguments one at a time. Blog, write, advocate through social media, and begin to change the conversation around at the grass roots level. Because, and this may be important: teachers, as a group, know how to educate children. We know what works and what doesn't. We know how to fix problems that happen. We know what bad teaching looks like and, in general, call it out to administrators.


We care about our students. We care about them even when they frustrate us. We care about learning. We care about it in spite of all of the barricades that the Federal and State governments and their puppet masters the book publishers and large corporations put in our way. 


On Fewer Teachers -- The Premise


The latest attack that is gaining traction in the political discourse claims that we need fewer teachers. The claim seems to be taking a few different forms and is based on the generalizing "well everyone know that..." down-home rhetoric that appeals to people who will only consider a sound-byte and not dig deeper. Eventually we need to come up with a good counter-soundbyte, but until that time, I want to pick apart the argument a little.


New Hampshire Governor, John Sununu, seems to be one of the many voices spearheading this argumentation. The mass appeal whips up fervor over smaller government, fewer public employees, etc. Naturally, since many teachers are public employees, they fall into this group. What is astounding is the reasoning behind it:
There are municipalities, there are states where there is flight of population. And as the population goes down, you need fewer teachers...If there’s fewer kids in the classrooms, the taxpayers really do want to hear there will be fewer teachers. [...] You have a lot of places where that is happening. You have a very mobile country now where things are changing. You have cities in this country in which the school population peaked ten, 15 years ago. And, yet the number of teachers that may have maintained has not changed. I think this is a real issue. And people ought to stop jumping on it as a gaffe and understand there’s wisdom in the comment.
ThinkProgress has the full article and includes video for those of you skittish about the bias of a liberal news source (of course, if you fall into that category, you have probably already stopped reading, which is part of the confirmation-bias issues that we need to address in our #digcit classes with the next generation).

 So, let's break down the Sununu quote, acknowledging that he may have deeper analysis that did not come out in this interview, but holding him accountable as a taxpayer making public statements to a wide audience:

Population is going down: His first argument is one of simple arithmetic. If we need X number of teacher per Y number of students. When the number of students goes down, the number of teachers should go down. -- Its so simple that absolutely no one could disagree, right? There are a few problems with the premise of the claim though:



First, the statement makes the assumption that the student/teacher ratio had already reached the ideal. Since many schools have been fighting overcrowding for decades, this is a tough assumption to hold, particularly as a blanket statement for all public schools. The research has shown that reduced class size coupled with teaching methods that maximize individual attention, 1:1 time with instructor, and less lecture show improvements (good summary of research with links).

Second, the algebraic statement sounds very close to a logical fallacy called "misleading vividness". This technique describes a circumstance in vivid detail, even if it is an exception, to convince the listener of a problem or to make a justification.

I have taught in classes with 50 students. In those classes, I was lucky to spend a minute or two talking to the most desperate students. More often than not, I was making choices to cut the losses of the students who would have zero chance at improvement (due to lack of will, or effort, or circumstances beyond control) in order to help students who had a reasonable chance. I am still haunted to this day about some of the students who I could not reach due to lack of time. -- See, it's easy to vividly describe a situation and make it sound like that's the whole issue.

Before we make a blanket statement that "we need fewer teachers", we need to know what the numbers are...on average, the median, the mode. We need to look at actual classrooms, because when we factor in calculus 4 and special education classrooms, the average looks pretty. We need to clock the amount of time a teacher can spend in individualized instruction per week and offer Professional Development as appropriate.

and, yes, in those cases where a) class size was already maximized and b) there has been a population adjustment, we need to evaluate teacher distribution. But let's not assume that is the rule off the top.

Big Tent Syndrome and other issues: The other claim that is going to be made A LOT in the next few weeks is that the people of Wisconsin have spoken out on behalf of the nation for smaller government and fewer public employees. I am not even sure where to start. I am at the National Debate Tournament, so lets just throw out some initial analysis:
  1. The question of a no-confidence vote for a governor is not a referendum on public sector size; and certainly not on the number of school teachers or class size specifically.
  2. The problem with a Big Tent political system is that you are often choosing among a variety of competing positions. Ask any Catholic who they vote for and you will hear the frustration as they choose between competing stances on the issue of life, social justice, preferential option for the poor, and religious liberty. Rarely does the vote for a candidate represent a whole-hearted endoresement of that candidate's party platform.
  3. It should go without saying, but the slight majority of Wisconsin voters, even if they represent a total endorsement and even if they accurately reflected the belief in the need for fewer teachers, is not representative of the entire country.
On reflection
Education, particularly public education, classroom teachers, and non-assessment based teaching methods are under attack. While everyone makes the claim that they are working "for the children", the decisions that are being made rarely have statistical, analytic, or historical evidence to back up the claim. The competing interests of platform ideology or political expedience is also a factor in almost every position taken.

Teachers: You must find your voice. Because everyone else is lined up against you.

Do it for the children...
You always have...