Thursday, October 17, 2013

Size Matters

Putting aside all protests to the contrary in most cases size matters. Unless it is a tax bill or a cellphone most folks and in particular men are going to argue the bigger the better. You know: big hands--big gloves. And who doesn't want big gloves? But this is not about gloves.

This particular diatribe is about schools.

Most folks including teachers and such will argue that the smaller the class the better. Now teachers have a vested interest in this reasoning as smaller classes with a stable student population means more positions with less work and probably more pay. But they avoid the near occasion of the perfect class size of one as that is more commonly associated with home schools from which the teachers and admins see little revenue. As in none. No teachee no payee. But this is not about class size either.

This is about something a bit more subtle that rears its ugly head as a logical inconsistency in the Charter School movement. Perhaps it even rises to the level of a contradiction. It all starts with one of the foundational elements of establishing a Charter which seems intended to resonate with the hippocratic oath: first do no harm. The no-harm clause is basically this: the charter is established on the basis of meeting certain academic outcomes for the students and in return Charter Schools are given wide latitude regarding how those goals are achieved and if those goals are not met the charter is revoked. Hence no harm.

Sounds good. Even a bad charter does only a few years damage to a smaller set of students while district wide trial and error fad adoption hurts everyone. This appeals to the secondary justification of risk containment. Not mitigation per se but containment nonetheless.

And it is a very appealing concept. The charter succeeds and prospers if the students succeed and prosper. And isn't that what we taxpayers are paying for? What the charter aficionados describe is a pay for results scheme. This runs contrary to traditional public schools which have historically received more money for poor performance based on the totally unsubstantiated belief that more money will solve the problem. In the case of charters this is reversed and is not so smoothly gradated and becomes binary: succeed and survive; fail and disappear.

Here is where size comes in because this very appealing story begs a question: if it works for the charter school or system why doesn't it work for the classroom and specifically the classroom teacher?

Strangely teachers claim they have no autonomy though in the same conversation many will complain that they don't get the instructional support and classroom materials they need--instead they have to do it all themselves. Is that indistinguishable from autonomy? If you were to split another pitcher you would probably hear about how teachers today are reduced to presenting dramatic interpretations of canned scripts. Is that too much support?

The question remains: why do teachers retain their jobs while their students wallow in abject failure and when will teacher contracts be tied to outcomes just as the charter is?

Discuss amongst yourselves.