Sinking a “Lifeboat”…

by Matthew Koslowski on July 8, 2009
in Essays

When I began to read the Opinion page of the Boston Globe today, I felt a stone in my stomach and gall in my throat. Before I finished the first sentence I could already imagine the course that the editorial “Lifeboat for failing schools” was going to take.

And I knew I wasn’t going to like it.

The editorial rehashes a lot of familiar ideas while ignoring what I see as significant factors in student achievement.

The editorial begins by discussing an idea proposed by the administration of Govenor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, to enable the state commissioner of education to create a receivership for “dozens of chronically underperforming schools.” After such a takeover, the state would revise everything including teacher contracts. When did schools become banks and failing students become toxic assets?

I understand the rationale for wanting to seize schools: failing students impact not just the individual student but the community and the Commonwealth as a whole. While laying the blame on teachers and school administrators is expedient, it does not account for the full scope of the problem. Just as a failing student impacts the whole community, a failing student is a microcosm of the whole community.

And it will take a whole community to help the failing student.

The editors of the Boston Globe write:

“Nothing fruitful comes of blaming broken or poor families for poor schooling. Of course some students are harder to educate. But every school is redeemable so long as it enjoys strong leadership, talented teachers, adequate funding, and enough hours in the day to make up for deficiencies in the home.”

They raise a valid point. Nothing fruitful comes from blame. Period. But looking systematically and thoroughly at the challenges of teaching children from poor and broken homes is fruitful. A student who comes from a broken home faces different challenges than a student who comes from a poor home. Some environments are not only challenging but actively antagonistic towards learning.

We need to be asking: what works with students from challenging environments? Funding alone is not enough, as the school district in Washington, D.C., has demonstrated.

The editors also call for lengthening the school day. What other profession is consistently asked to work longer than eight hours for the same amount of pay? Most schools in Boston offer six hours of classroom instruction per day. Teachers arrive before the school day begins and leave after the day ends to provide extra help for students. In addition, they have to grade tests and essays outside of the classroom as well as attend to any emails and phone calls they receive from the parents.

Lengthening the school day and raising per student expenditure will not have any meaningful effect whatsoever if the class sizes remain large. A high school teacher facing forty children per class will not be as effective as a teacher facing thirty, nor will the teacher facing thirty be as effective as a teacher facing twenty. The editors do not call on the citizenry to spend more money on teachers, to recruit excellent teachers and to recruit more teachers or, alternatively, recruit teachers aides and other paraprofessionals. In order to learn, all people need individualized feedback on their performances.

Classroom sizes will sink any “lifeboat” the state sends in.


4 Responses to “Sinking a “Lifeboat”…”
  1. Neil McMullen says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. When I was in school, a class of 25 seemed very full. I can’t imagine what a 40 student class would be like, both for the teacher and the students.
    Do we have more data on the relationship between funding and performance? One district raises small sample size concerns.

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    Thank you for your comments, Neil.

    Whether a classroom of 25 or 50 students is appropriate depends on the level of the students. When we see college students in large lecture halls, we expect them to be autodidact. There are ways in large classrooms to adjust to this: for example, a teacher in a large classroom may create study groups and assign each of the students one part of an assignment. Each student must master his or her own content enough to be able to teach it to his or her group. The teacher then assesses all members of the group with content from each part. The success or failure of the whole depends on the proper working of each.

    You are right, also, to raise concerns about small sample size. If exhaustive studies of funding versus performance have been done, I am not yet acquainted with them. While the idea does interest me, I am not sure how much research I will put into that per se since, at this time, I am more concerned with learning the classroom side of education than the administrative side.

  2. Matthew Koslowski says:

    David Krane, principal of the McCarthy-Towne School in Acton, published a Letter to the Editor in the Boston Globe in response to “Lifeboat for failing schools.”

    Read, “Usual scapegoats targeted over failing schools” online.