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
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.