Monday, August 3, 2020

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DeVos, public schools need flexible funding, more teachers, better pay, smaller class sizes

“Students may be better served by being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.” — Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education

There are so many things wrong with this statement and the person who said it, it is hard to know where to begin.

DeVos, who has a business degree from Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI, has extensive experience in business. She and her husband have a history of successful business ventures to tout, and I am sure she budgets her finances well.

DeVos is most likely good at making hard decisions when it comes to saving money, as she and her husband have clearly managed their finances such that they have little to want for.

DeVos has also campaigned to fund school choice. That is the choice for a student to choose the school to which he or she wants to attend with a voucher — public money — so that he or she can choose a school better than the local public school, but not be limited in that choice by a lack of money to attend said school.

While this is an amicable pursuit, it does not make DeVos an expert in how to improve public education. Instead, she seems an expert on how to move outside the prism of public education and support others in teaching how they want, what they want, when they want in the charter schools.

Remember that proverb, “The  grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?” The implication of the proverb is that while the grass may appear greener, on close inspection, it often is not.

Well, so it goes for school choice. Even with school choice allowing charter schools across the country to blossom, and many are successful, the question should be: what makes some charter schools successful and others not?

The National Education Association, a good charter school should provide quality education, which consists of “caring, experienced teachers and rich and engaging curriculum;” equity, with high expectations and the resources to meet those expectations; accountability, which means, “Charter schools must meet or exceed any student performance targets applied to all other taxpayer-funded schools, or else be subject to the same consequences as the traditional sector. They should be audited annually, with the results posted publicly;” and transparency, which means the charter schools “need to operate openly in ways we rightly expect of traditional schools.”

If we are taking money that would go to a public school, and we focus on just the teacher’s responsibility to the students — providing  quality and equitable learning for the students, how is it that a teacher will go about living up to that expectation?

To know that, you need to have been in the classroom. You need to know the curriculum, best practices, understand the students and where they come from  and what they come with, so you know what you are working with already, and what you need to help grow into mastery — which is what quality education provides — the chance for a student to master the material learned.

To ensure mastery, the school has to be able to provide the teachers and students with the resources they need to attain mastery in different areas — books, project supplies, computers, updated programs, etc.

The problem with the charter solution to poor public school performance is that the public schools are too large without enough funding to provide teachers and students with the resources they need, and teachers with a reasonable number of students in class to work with in ways that will allow for quality performances by everyone involved.

But how can someone who has never been in a public school system every day for a year or 20 years, truly understand the level of work having even just 20 students in five classes requires of a teacher?

The time to plan, collect resources or improvise when resources are not available, or fundraise for resources and then interact with students throughout the process to provide meaningful feedback and time for revisions so that students practice producing quality work?

Most teachers in public schools work more than one job, and still spend more than 40 hours a week doing work for their teaching job, and a teacher in South Dakota can have 20 years of experience and just break $50,000 a year on their salary increase.

The problem with DeVos’s statement to increase class sizes is not that she supports choice, it is that she fails to see that choice is an effort to do in smaller settings what many public schools cannot do because of limited funding. Her choice initiatives take more money away from public schools, making their efforts to be successful even more challenging.

Larger class sizes lead to poorer quality of instruction and assignments as teachers make changes that allow them to simplify grading and run students through the mill. Most teachers do not do this if they can help it, and most teachers want to ensure students succeed, but making class sizes larger will make that goals for success look like Pluto in the night school — a far and distant dream of a could be but maybe not —  planet — a could be good but maybe not education.

We do not need fewer higher paid teachers with more students per teacher. We need more higher paid teachers with fewer students per teacher. Stop shuffling money into charters and start rethinking how money is allocated to schools, with an understanding that if you take care of the teachers, they will take care of the students.