Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hey Bill, Want to Trade Schools With Danny?

Danny Westneat's column in the Times this week certainly had a challenge to Bill Gates about class size.

Bill, here's an experiment. You and I both have an 8-year-old. Let's take your school and double its class sizes, from 16 to 32. We'll use the extra money generated by that — a whopping $400,000 more per year per classroom — to halve the class sizes, from 32 to 16, at my public high school, Garfield.

In 2020, when our kids are graduating, we'll compare what effect it all had. On student achievement. On teaching quality. On morale. Or that best thing of all, the "environment that promotes relationships between teachers and students."

First, he explains how Lakeside, where Bill went to high school, thinks about class size:

"Ask any alumnus what the best thing about Lakeside is," the school's brochure urges. "And they will likely mention an environment that promotes relationships between teachers and students through small class sizes."

This is pertinent because Bill Gates has been saying that smaller class sizes are a big waste of money.  He's calling for an end to state caps on how many students can be in a classroom.

"Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets — and one of the most unchallenged — is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement," Gates said last week to a gathering of governors.

As Danny says:
Now let me clarify: Gates is suggesting larger classes in public schools.

Not the private ones like his daughter's that advertises - you guessed it - smaller class sizes.

Gates' theory is that with a good teacher all things are possible (and throw more money to the teachers and they won't care).   Danny susses this out:

I looked up that study, done at the UW in 2008, and what it actually says is teachers prefer a $5,000 pay boost to having two fewer students. They weren't ever asked about more students.

Of course a high-quality teacher can do better in a larger class than a struggling teacher.  But let's be fair to teachers - there is a point where all the effort and skill cannot overcome the numbers (especially with students with issues including behavior issues).   Class size is not the straw man that Gates makes it out to be.

I know I won't get praise for this but I'm sorry - Gates barely saw the inside of a public school and his children never will.  That he gives to them what the rest of us want makes him more than a little hypocritical. 

36 comments:

Sahila said...

Beware he who comes bearing gifts...

Gates clandestine PR campaign complete with new astro-turf org

money is no object when you're buying public education

another mom said...

Danny Westneat makes a great point. If enormous class sizes are the answer, why is it that private schools do the opposite? Interesting bit of hyposcrasy.

Sahila - thanks for the links...I think. I don't know whether to cry or laugh. At least WaPo published put it out there, and is Gates and Co are now exposed.The question is will Danny Westneat better yet a a local investigative journalist pick this up and run with it.

WenD said...

I've never understood why Gates is obsessed with toying with education. He certainly worked around some of the brightest people available, but at the end of the day, his cynical business practices have forever tarnished the brand. Linux = free, as in no cost and relatively free of potential exploitation by viruses. If you look at how development teams were pitted against one another (check the Dick Brass op-ed from the NYT last year), it's clear that their rep for innovation is a cover for some of the worst management practices you'll ever see in a top company. Their miracle is continuing to collect on big business licenses in spite of so many bad decisions and market failures. He's not an expert, and his methods are the opposite of altruistic.

I don't like reading or hearing Balter, so I have no idea if she cites any successes that Gates Foundation can take credit for.

Anonymous said...

My answer to everyone who asks what would be the first step in fixing public education is "Halve class sizes and triple the budget." I can't believe people put stock in the one or two skewed studies that "show" that class size doesn't matter.

But then too the state caps on class size never got funded properly, and aren't really in place in any district I've worked for.

--another teacher

zb said...

"I've never understood why Gates is obsessed with toying with education. "

My guess is that all of the ed reform movement is based on the idea that with some form of knowledge or management technique, they'll be able to scale up the work of teaching, making it more productive. More productive means less money, and they think that will be a win win for everyone.

The problem, I think, is that teaching (like parenting) is a process that scales up very very badly. I don't think they're going to find the magic script or teaching method or tool that will allow them to use less labor to produce the results they want.

So now, they're trying to extract more labor for the same cost. They're hoping that the method that works in the software industry will work in teaching. That is, reward based on a outwardly measurable result, and allow the competitors to use whatever means are necessary to reach that result (i.e. measure value-added teaching and) and reward it. The problems with this plan are at least two fold. First all methods of measurement (even great ones) produce unintended effects. Software that sells the best isn't necessarily going to be the best, for example. Second, the rewards for successful software are extravagant. Not 10K of extra merit pay or 20K or even 30K, but 10 million dollars. That makes it worthwhile, purely based on reward, to put in 90 hour days for the minuscule chance of the 10M payoff.

Teaching can't be rewarded on that scale for success, because it can't be scaled up.

So, I still believe that the Gates foundation is good at heart, though sadly misguided. I don't think we're going to find any magic efficiencies, and we're pretty much stuck teaching kids one at a time, inefficiently, just as we're stuck raising our children tremendously inefficiently. No other method works.

Chris said...

I watched the [Sir]Ken Robinson video, which made me get his book, and now I'm struck that Gates & reform crowd focusing on better delivery of a flawed product.

(Robinson, in a nutshell, thinks education should develop more of the diverse array of human talents, and the testing movement instead further narrows the sliver we have historically had in public school.)

Eric B said...

Re: up-scaling, my father works in evaluating international assistance projects. He's always said that the very worst thing you can do to a successful $50 million project is turn it into a $500 million project.

While I doubt anyone is going to multiply education funding by 10 (I'd like them to try!), it gets at the same problem. By expanding systems dramatically, you often destroy the things that made them work in the first place. For example, expanding a 150-person academy within a high school to the entire school.

Chris said...

Eric B, from your mouth to their ears.

Sincerely, Schmitz Park and Thornton Creek.

seattle citizen said...

In addition to Robinson, try Yong Zhao (from his blog):

"Entrepreneurship and creativity do not come from government planning, standardized curriculum, or standardized testing. On the contrary, government planning, standardized curriculum, and testing tend to work against both entrepreneurship and creativity. Moreover, entrepreneurship and creativity are much more than a set of prescribed knowledge and skills. They are more spiritual, psychological, social, and cultural than simply cognitive skills. Therefore we cannot wait until they grow up and provide a crash course on entrepreneurship and creativity. We have to start young and deliberately work to develop what is needed for entrepreneurship."

Lisa said...

I've seen it in action, as have many in SPS I am sure. Our school was failing when we started there a decade ago, so class sizes were small as was the overall school. The school was wonderful and there was a dedicated room for art, another for music, etc. Today the school is a "success" and bursting at the seams. It is a good school, no doubt, but many of the qualities that elevated it to wonderful are long gone. Our second child going through the school has had a very different experience than the first one.

zb said...

"He's always said that the very worst thing you can do to a successful $50 million project is turn it into a $500 million project. "

Like Webvan, right?

But the problem is even worse in education. A teacher said something to me recently, along the lines of ultimately every kid is different, and so no method, strategy, or idea is going to work with all kids. There is no average kid. I can see that there are better and worse teachers, but ultimately, a teacher does a good job by addressing the needs of an individual child.

That scales up really really badly. What works for one child won't work for another. As adults many of them catch up to one another (so you loose some of the developmental variability) and we all learn to conform enough to function. But as children you can't scale from one t two, let alone from 150 to 500.

zb said...

Oh, and Danny wants to switch kids. He can't, of course, 'cause Bill Gates gets to buy all kinds of things for his children that Danny can't, including a smaller class size.

But, what I'd like Gates to do is to teach a class. He can come to my kids school, where the kids are amazing, brilliant, and about as school-enabled as children get and try to teach them something he knows pretty well. He'd be amazed at what they can do, but also flabbergasted by how different it is to interact with 10 10 year olds than with 10 30 year olds.

And, then, he can be a principal of Ranier Beach for 3 years and see what he can do to fix it.

ArchStanton said...

And, then, he can be a principal of Ranier Beach for 3 years and see what he can do to fix it.

That sounds like an excellent idea for a reality show. Start pitching that baby now!

Melissa Westbrook said...

Funny you say that ZB because at the American Federation of Teachers convention last summer, Gates told the entire group of his attempt to teach a science lesson to his children. His 3 children. And how hard it was. It got a big laugh and yes, we all know how hard it is to have the skills to teach and to teach more than just a few kids (including your own).

I'm guessing that was something someone wrote for him to make him sound sympathetic to teachers because obviously, he no longer believes that if he thinks class size caps should be eliminated.

KG said...

How could anybody take a guy seriously whom has 55 billion dollars in supposable wealth, enogh to run Seattle Schools for over 100 years. Out of touch Bill, are you? He wants to privitize education because it is the last "Big Enchilada". Class Warfare? Definitley.

Stu said...

He wants to privitize education because it is the last "Big Enchilada". Class Warfare? Definitley.


I'm always a bit surprised at how many shots are fired at Gates and his money. I disagree with many of the things put forth by Gates and his foundation but don't, for a second, question his motives. He puts his money where his mouth is and, even though I might not agree with where that mouth might be, I think it's amazing the dedication he has to public education. I would love it if he would consider alternate viewpoints on some of his ideas but criticizing someone who give billions to education is cutting off your nose to spite your face. And trashing him 'cause he has the money to send his children to private school is ridiculous . . . I would suggest many of us, with unlimited funds, would consider private school for our kids.

I also think that Bill Gates isn't advocating for "huge class sizes" by any means. I don't recall him saying the smaller class sizes aren't better; what he's done is suggest that he doesn't believe it's the be all to end all and that concentrating and regulating that one thing might be a waste of money and a bit off target. (My son has been in small classes and large classes; the worst year he had in school had 21 kids and a terrible teacher . . the best year had 29 kids and a teacher who was like a dream come true in every way.)

[I have to pause here to rinse out my brain 'cause I wasn't intending to defend anything about the reform movement or Gates.]

I might disagree with Bill Gates and the way he spends his money but at least he's spending money on public education . . . every dollar helps.

Two other thoughts: it wouldn't hurt the district to be run like a business with clear definitions of personnel, chain of command, and people who listen to the workers (teachers) and the clients (families). Hey, maybe Costco could take over the schools!

Lastly, I think it's funny how we slam Gates for being able to "buy down class size," unlike us while, at the same time, so many people here slammed the McGilvra PTA for doing the same thing for a public school.

stu

PS - Loved Danny's column!

Melissa Westbrook said...

"I would love it if he would consider alternate viewpoints on some of his ideas but criticizing someone who give billions to education is cutting off your nose to spite your face."

He was not elected, hired or appointed. He should NOT have more of a voice than anyone else despite his millions.

Stu, many of us DO have the money to sent our children to private school. We choose not to because we believe in public education.

I'm not sure I believe his money HAS done that much good. Remember the "school transformation" money? How did that help SPS?

Read Sahila's links and tell me his money is benign.

seattle citizen said...

"...every dollar helps."

Not if they're directed at hurtful practices, or running public systems from private sidelines.

Speechless said...

So what can we DO to support smaller class sizes short of switching to private school?
Is there any such movement?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Speechless, I honestly don't know what to tell you. We passed I-732 believing it would lead to smaller class sizes. The money got used for everything but smaller class sizes.

The teachers have a contract for class sizes but have to accept larger classes (and get paid a little extra but really they should).

We had a superintendent who for 3 years said it didn't matter. We have the wealthiest man in the country who has the ear of the President telling us it doesn't matter and in fact, the class sizes could go larger.

You could try the McGilvra route of raising $250k a year but that isn't even working out for them.

I have nothing to offer on this point.

GatewoodMom said...

The District has effectively prevented PTAs from using funds to reduced class size. My son's West Seattle School has done that for years. We used to have an average class size of 20, but two schools were closed in north west seattle and the district drew a huge geographical boundary around the school under the NSAP. We are now busting at the seams and portables were delivered last week. No matter how badly we want to use our funds to reduce class size, we can't because we are simply out of physical space to do so.

KG said...

Stu, it is amazing how so much worship of Mr. Gates there is by average Joe. Remeber the Perma temps case that cost Gates Millions as he abused the worker?
I do not think there is enough criticism of Gates. He is not an educator, but to many is considered some sort of an expert on everything because of his wealth and abuse of power. He and the Paul Allen would help privitize all education and profit heavily because they are the definition of greed. Look at the attacks on education and Wisconsin lately.

zb said...

Stu:

I agree with you that the Gates care about education, and disagree with people who think it's a form of class warfare (though it is easy for rich people to get out of touch with the world everyone else experience, just as it's easy for the middle class to not understand the world of the poor).

But, I think misguided money has the potential for doing very significant harm. The small schools high debacle is an example, and the same kinds of interventions/ experiments that fail can be implemented over and over again. I hope that the Gates have the ability to learn from their mistakes (and kind of believe they do).

The ideology, though, that assumes that there's a magical teaching method, that scaling up is the answer, that metrics will measure human beings is awfully hard for many people to give up, even in the face of evidence.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Gatewood,you could have two teachers (or a teacher's aide) in a classroom and that effectively reduces the class size without needing more space.

Lori said...

I think Stu is spot-on about Gates' motivation. There are indeed philanthropists who want to make the world a better place. But, my problem with this approach is really much bigger than the Gates Foundation alone. As I've started to follow issues in education, I've grown frustrated, saddened and confused at what passes for "research" in this field.

I come at this as someone who's spent 20 years in clinical cancer research. I love science, I love the scientific method, I love seeing hypotheses generated and tested. I've seen amazing advances in my field due to a methodical, systematic approach to trying to find valid and reliable answers to important questions. And I can't see why it should be any different in the social sciences.

Why is it that there has only been one randomized field test about class size conducted in this country? And why do people in education hold up observational studies as superior to this trial? Why didn't the nation embark on a program of replicating the STAR study, testing different "effect sizes" (STAR compared classes of 16 to classes of 24, if I remember correctly). A systematic framework for education research would have given us subsequent studies looking at classes of maybe 28 versus 20, 32 versus 22, different regions of the country, different types of students, and on and on and on. That's how you tease out an answer to an issue of societal importance.

I can't help but look back at how much time and money has been wasted by jumping right into large scale experiments or worse, putting things into place like value-added measures and tying them to teacher pay without any supporting data at all. In my field, I've seen too many drugs that "made sense" fail spectacularly once adequately tested. Why is education different? You don't just approve a study because there is a wealthy donor; you need a plausible hypothesis, you need supportive data, you need someone making sure the interests of the subjects are protected. None of this seems to happen in education.

Anyway, I could write a tome on this topic, but I won't unless others want to talk about it. I'd love if there are any social scientists out there who could help me understand this field better.

hschinske said...

A class with two teachers is NOT AT ALL the same thing as two classes half the size. If we were to get really serious about reducing class sizes, we'd have to have more classrooms, and that's what would be really expensive.

http://www.robertferrell.net/2010/10/class-size-myths-and-truths/ is worth a read.

Helen Schinske

zb said...

"A class with two teachers is NOT AT ALL the same thing as two classes half the size. If we were to get really serious about reducing class sizes, we'd have to have more classrooms, and that's what would be really expensive."

I heard a sad story the other day about a kid in a SPS middle school who didn't have a chair to sit in (he had to share with another student). The child tells this story with child-like acceptance of the inevitable, and ends the story with child-like pleasure about finally being in a school where he has a chair. I really want our children to expect to have a chair to sit in, and be angry if they don't. It seems like a minimal expectation, that you have a chair, and a book, and maybe a pencil or two.

zb said...

Oh, and no, I don't think there will be any way to buy down class size in individual classrooms and in individual schools in the future.

My guess is that this change was a purposeful feature of the NSAP, that neighborhood boundaries meant that schools would loose any control they had over the size of their school, and thus the size of their classrooms.

The solution, then, has to be to advocate for smaller classroom sizes over all, but as Mel points out, voters' attempts to target money towards this also failed.

As a solution for one's own children, one might try to search out underenrolled schools (for example, Sand Point), but even that won't mean that you'll get smaller class sizes, since they'll try to make the class as big as they can.

Melissa Westbrook said...

That's pretty sad, ZB. I remember when we were at Eckstein, the PTA was buying new desks one room a year. It was just pathetic.

Mercermom said...

It's easy to criticize Gates, but Danny's criticism also has holes:

1. Lakesides sells small class size b/c its customers who pay $25k a year think it matters. That doesn't mean their kids wouldn't do well in bigger classes.

2. Danny's child will also probably do well (and as well as many Lakeside kids) if his child is able to take advantage of Garfield's APP program and/or AP classes.

3. There are people who could afford to be in schools like Lakeside, but choose GHS notwithstanding larger classes. While it might be more pleasant if the kids were in smaller classes, it's not clear to me that those kids will have worse outcomes than Lakeside kids. Now if you're from a lower-income family with parents who have minimal education, it might be different . . . .

Speechless said...

Thanks Melissa. It's sad.
@ Mercermom, I know many well to do parents that claim to be for public school, but in reality their kids just were not admitted to the good private schools. On the other hand, how many families who can't afford private schools do you think would stay in public schools if you offered them full scholarship to a good private school?

Mercermom said...

We would. We could pay for private school. I'm pretty confident our kids would have private school options were we to apply. Our decision not to pursue private schools has nothing to do with the cost. It's about being part of public education.

Maureen said...

Mercermom, I think you set up some straw men there. True, Lakeside has small class size because that is what their parents want and are willing to pay for. Are you saying that that those parents are delusional? Those parents demand it because they know it is important and will lead to better outcomes for their kids. Of course, they don't want to pay for an extremely small class -- like two or three. They know that socialization with other kids who can afford to be there is important as well.

I agree that those kids would do 'well' in an APP class of 32 at Garfield. But would they do 'as well?' Of course not. They would not have the benefit of writing long research papers that receive close attention from a teacher. They would not have access to seven periods a day of challenging courses over four years. They wouldn't. People don't pay $25,000 for nothing.

I can imagine choosing Garfield over Lakeside, but it wouldn't be for academic reasons. It would be for socialization reasons.

David said...

Maureen said, "People don't pay $25,000 for nothing."

I think it depends what you mean by nothing. The data shows that private schools don't perform better academically than public schools (once normalized for selection bias). See, for example:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090226093423.htm
http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2006461.asp

On a broader issue, Seattle apparently has very low market share for public schools compared to other major cities (something like 70% of Seattle children go to public school compared to the norm of nearly 90%). I doubt that is because people perceive a lot more benefits from private school here in Seattle, but because Seattle Public Schools does such a poor job of attracting and retaining middle class parents.

I've even heard people working for the district suggest that public schools are only for poor people and that, if middle class people don't like Seattle Public School policies, they should get out. But, as others have said, that attitude is very destructive, as middle class parents take all their resources and support with them when they leave.

wsnorth said...

Maybe the public school system should gradually transition from smaller classes in the Elementary years to larger ones in High School.

Many students will face large lecture hall classes as freshmen in college, after all. I vividly recall my shock at walking into those large classes, but also remember some of the lessons and learning just as vividly!

Abby said...

It's class warfare. I admire Bill Gates for his philanthropy, but he ought to keep his nose out of education. I can't forgive him for his involvement in "Waiting for Superman" and union bashing.

I think Cornell West sums it up:

"Waiting for "Superman" scapegoats teachers’ unions. Yet those countries with the best education systems in the world, like Finland, have over 90% of their teachers unionized, and their students take few, if any standardized tests. In Finland there are 2 teachers in classrooms of 14. Teachers receive the salaries of many of our businesspeople. 15% of their college graduates teach in schools rather than make their way to Wall Street to be millionaires. They reflect a fundamentally different set of priorities in America. And if we don’t adapt to those priorities, we will continue to scapegoat, demonize & thereby undercut the morale of our teachers."