Sunday, December 22, 2013

On Teacher Workload, Class Size, and Pretending

The New York Times published an article yesterday on the effects of budget cuts on class sizes across the country.

A few items that stand out:
  • "Across the country, public schools employ about 250,000 fewer people than before the recession."
  • "Staff cuts among reading, special education and English language specialists have hit especially hard."
  • One teacher notes, "'There is no way I could adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of all the kids in my class.'"
  • "...the public school population increased by 24 percent from 1987 to 2012, while the number of working teachers grew by 46 percent."
It continues to surprise me how much seemingly sincere debate goes into whether class size matters. It's not really a debatable topic. Or, at least, it is something akin to debating whether the earth is at the center of the universe. Virtually any topic, I suppose, can be subject to seemingly legitimate debate if given play by the right media outlets.

A phenomenal teacher I know recently told me that he once said to his administrator that he learned long ago he could not meet the needs of all the students in his class every day. He said that he knows some days just aren't going to be for some students, and that the best he can expect of them on those days is to participate politely. 

His administrator did not understand. "What?" he asked, with a confused look on his face.

How can it be, his administrator must have wondered, that a veteran teacher so well-versed in the edudogma of the past ten years could speak so frankly and so outside of the pretend world of words - the doublespeak - that public educators live their professional lives in?

Teachers are expected to plan for every student in every class, every day. Teachers are expected to assess all of their students diligently and provide meaningful feedback. Teachers are expected to take learners' differences into account in creating assessment and providing feedback.Teachers are expected to help students when they need it before, during, and after school. Teachers are expected to communicate regularly and effectively with parents. And now, more and more, teachers are expected to document virtually everything they do for the purposes of providing evidence that they are competent for their yearly evaluations that comprise nearly 100 pages by the end of the year (not kidding).

At least it is said aloud and written on paper that teachers are expected to do all of this. Most administrators who have taught for any significant number of years know that this is far beyond the scope of any human who eats, sleeps, and tries occasional non-work related activities. But we don't work in a environment where one is allowed to admit that to anyone else - at least not while you're at work.

Teachers regularly sit through meetings and trainings in which they're instructed to begin new initiatives and follow new policies. And mostly, rather than admit that our lack of ability to perform our current jobs makes us hesitant to add more to our plate, we nod and pretend to begin doing one more thing.

I've found, over the years, that one's ability to pretend can determine career length. It's not just pretending, though; it's making peace with the pretending and the reality.

On the other hand, it is partly our willingness to pretend that allows districts and bureaucrats to continue piling on work.

Class size and the number of preps (e.g. English I, World History, Biology) teachers take on are often overlooked as minor additions to workload. They are, in fact, massive.

Class size is often poorly understood because changes in class size don't affect all classrooms in all schools the same way.

Students from safe environments who know how to learn, are motivated to learn, and already have background knowledge in the subject at hand are significantly more manageable in class. But even when you have all of those factors working in your favor, an increase in class size still portends a massive increase in work when it comes to parent communication, assessment, and tutoring - all tasks that fall outside of the school day, and therefore often slip the minds of those in this "debate" who don't work in schools.

For teachers who work in schools that serve unsafe communities with students from less educated families who don't see education as a vital component for their future, increases in class size carry an even heavier burden. It means that you have to be extraordinarily skilled at classroom management, willing to devote tremendous effort planning detailed lessons, and have the competencies and social-emotional characteristics that allow underprivileged students to trust you and learn from you. 

It is unfortunate that the success of an education worker is so ambiguous and hard to quantify. Were I tasked with moving rocks from one side of a room to another, it would be simple to decide how good I am at doing it. But in education, we don't even agree on what the task is - i.e. what we're educating for. And even if we did, we wouldn't agree on how to gauge it or the best way to achieve it. 

The effect is that the mounds and heaps of work done by education workers go completely undetected by anyone outside of schools unless they are connected to a gain in test scores.

But trust someone who works in schools, class size makes a tremendous difference. 


  1. Great post! Loved this quote, "It continues to surprise me how much seemingly sincere debate goes into whether class size matters. It's not really a debatable topic. Or, at least, it is something akin to debating whether the earth is at the center of the universe."