Taking a page out of “W’s” book, Mitt Romney was recently in Philadelphia getting close to the folks in the inner city and posing as a friend of public education. Actually, we don’t know why he was there, but he took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves to show he’s a “regular guy,” and he had some interesting things to say in defense of his claims that smaller classes do not benefit students. In a story in The Los Angeles Times we read that, according to Romney, The consultants found that, “gosh, in schools that are the highest-performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems,” . . .. Instead, parental involvement and top-flight teachers and administrators make the difference.
I have no idea who “the consultants” were, but the notion that smaller classes don’t make it easier to teach is bullocks, as my English friends would say. The teachers in the room when Romney gave this little speech were quick to object. As the article notes, Romney was challenged repeatedly during a round table discussion with educators to defend his claim that reducing class size doesn’t improve student performance. Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom at all knows that the ideal is one-on-one and the effectiveness of teaching goes down proportionately from there. Classes of 50 are pretty much a waste of time for most (though certainly not all) students and classes larger than that are a bit of a joke. Much depends on what one wants to do in the class, of course, but large classes, as a rule, translate into time wasted. Online classes, as I have blogged about before, are mostly useful for transmitting information and the data suggest that the dropout rate is very high in such classes. One speculates that it might be a function of the lack of personal contact between teacher and students — and among the students themselves. Some of the best classes I taught in my 41 years of college teaching were ones in which I said very little and the students discussed the issues among themselves, with a gentle push from time to time to keep them on topic.
In any event, what Mitt had to say was not altogether wrong. He is certainly correct in saying that it all starts in the home. Parental involvement and top-flight teachers are of immense importance, especially in the early years. For Romney this is an argument in favor of overhauling the education system, of course, and moving from public to charter schools. To be honest, though I would like to see the public schools be improved rather than, in effect, eliminated, I am somewhat in sympathy with Romney here. I do think that our schools are failing in part because much of what is done in “teacher’s colleges” is a waste of time and money. And the data suggest that as a nation we are at present drawing our teachers from the lower third of the student population — probably because pay and benefits are so poor. This raises the issue of teachers’ unions.
Mitt contends that pressing for smaller classes is a ploy by teachers unions — one of his favorite targets — to get more teachers hired. But it is the unions that have made it possible for teachers to (barely) keep their financial heads above water and if things are to improve in the profession it will take more money, not less. If we want to upgrade the ranks of the teachers, we need to start paying them a living wage — as they do in Finland which Mitt correctly holds up as a model of public education. In that country competition is fierce to get the high-paying and high-prestige teaching jobs. The contrast with this country is sharp.
So, on balance, Mitt is correct in saying that parents need to become more involved in what their kids do before and especially early on in school. And he is right that we need first-rate teachers. But he is wrong to say that small classes are not a benefit to the kids. And he must realize that teachers’ unions are essential if we are to hope to improve the condition of the chronically low-paid teachers in this country and attract a better quality of mind to the profession, which he admits we need.