Education Reform, Politics

Today’s Education Reform Possibility: Extra Teachers Per Classroom?

After reading my education reform piece in the Washington Post several weeks ago, a friend wrote to ask me what I thought of hiring additional teachers as an education reform strategy.  With some slight reworking, here were my thoughts (as a former teacher):

First of all, consider the money question, since we live in a time of education funding shortfalls.  Public funding is in short supply.  Even with districts working to lower administration costs and save money elsewhere, it’s difficult to find additional resources.  Perhaps even more challenging—imagine selling the public on the decision to add new teachers to existing classrooms instead of giving them their own students and lowering class sizes.  This is to say nothing of the tension between hiring more teachers and raising teacher salaries.

Secondly, consider this approach in the context of a better economy.  If we had the funding, would extra teachers be a good idea?  It seems obvious that having a second teacher to assist underperforming teachers could help make a significant difference in those classrooms.  If this is something a district pursued without establishing more rigorous accountability measures, however, it would be inefficient at best.  In other words, if hiring and firing remain untethered to teachers’ talent in the classroom, schools could be hiring additional ineffective personnel who would then be a further drain on the budget (and just as hard to get rid of).  If tenure is modified to make ineffective teachers accountable for their work, additional teachers in the classroom could be a real boon to those teachers in tough situations: i.e. those with large classes or teaching difficult subjects.

One final question to consider: would the social/psychological tensions caused by offering some (underperforming/ineffective) teachers additional resources and assistance be worse than the tensions caused by stepping up accountability measures?  Almost nothing is more frustrating to a teacher who is succeeding in a difficult situation than to see an unsuccessful (especially if work ethic is a factor here) colleague offered job perks to succeed.  Are they being rewarded for ineptitude?  It might—and this is counterintuitive, I know—be easier on school culture to set clear accountability expectations.  This is speculative and anecdotal.  It’s how I felt when I was teaching, but I’m not sure I can prove that it would be the actual outcome of district-wide policies along these lines.  It might be instructive to consider that teachers’ unions understand this sentiment better than anyone.  They frequently inspire their members by pointing to instances of unequal treatment (look for use of “fair,” “equal,” or “common” in these links).  Could it be that notions of “fairness” cut both ways?

Incidentally, the Brooklyn charter school where I taught had two teachers in every classroom (with 30 kids/class).  The school streamlined spending on support staff and other areas in order to make this happen.  All teachers at our school were on at-will, non-union contracts.  We drew our students from the surrounding area and shared a building with several local public schools.  In my first year, the students in my classroom made more than two years of reading growth during our year together.  In my second year, my students made nearly two years of reading growth.  Meanwhile, despite having a nearly identical student population, the other schools in our building routinely courted closure as “failing schools.”  At the end of the day, though, I think that this had less to do with paired teachers and much more to do with long school days, an extended school year, and committed instructors.

So look, education reform is hard sledding, and it’s entirely possible that initiatives along these lines could make a difference.  More on accountability the next time I’m able to get back to writing on education reform (almost certainly another post on this in the next two weeks).  In the meantime, though, we could all do worse than to emulate The Kalamazoo Promise.

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December 2010
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