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Curmudgucation: DeVos, Class Size, and the Reformistan Bubble

I almost feel sorry for Betsy DeVos. Her two big news breaks this week are not entirely her fault.

First, there's the Special Olympics fiasco. It appears that the budget office made the hugely unpopular cut, and DeVos stood by it like a good soldier, right until Donald Trump threw her under the bus and canceled the cuts (that were never going to get past Congress). But now DeVos is the one who gets to carry that policy albatross around her neck, right next to her grizzly-shooting merit badge, even though she did previously, in fact, give Special Olympics her own salary.

Okay, but that's the last time I'm going under that bus for you.


Then there's the business of students benefitting from higher class sizes. Make no mistake-- this was awful and stupid and just all-around bad (though by no means the worst thing to come out of her mouth at the hearings). But it's not really fair to hang this one on DeVos-- the idea of the super-teacher crammed into a room with a gazillion students has been on reformsters' preferred policy list for at least a decade.

I wrote about this almost exactly four years ago ("Super Sardinemasters: Paying More To Teach More"), then as now leaning on the work of Leonie Haimson at Class Size Matters.

The big class with a great teacher idea seems to have made its public mainstream debut in a 2010 Bill Gates speech to the CCSSO. Not surprisingly, Arne Duncan was shortly thereafter talking it up.

We spent billions of dollars to reduce class size,” Duncan told ABC’s Andrea Mitchell in 2011, when we could instead give teachers higher salaries in exchange for larger classrooms, thereby attracting much more talented teachers.

That was back in 2011, and as near as Haimson can tell, nobody ever actually tried to do it. Broad "graduate" (can you graduate from a fake superintendent training program?) John Covington was going to give it a try in Kansas City Schools, but instead resigned and went to Michigan to work for EAA which played with using computers as a way to shoehorn many many students into single classrooms.

I was writing back in 2015 because no less than Georgetown University's Edunomics Lab had put out a paper supporting this nonsense by Marguerite Roza and Amanda Warco. The paper was almost honest about the problem it was trying to solve-- how can you pay teachers more without raising your payroll costs? Easy peasy-- fire all your bad teachers and give their salaries, and their students, to your remaining super-teachers.

The hook from which any such proposal hangs is the assertion that great teaching matters more than small class size, but even in the Edunomics paper, that's a shaky hook indeed. The "research" cited includes "research" like a paper from the Fordham Institute and research that "modeled the effects"-- in other words, not actual research on the actual stuff we're talking about. The critical point it completely ignores is the degree to which great teaching depends on class size.

Edunomics also has to tap dance around preferences. Parents prefer smaller classes; that's unequivocally true, but Rozas and her co-author try to get past that by citing research that says parents would prefer a 27-student class with a great teacher to a 22-student class with a random  teacher. This ignores a great many things, not the least of which is that in many districts, a 27-student class would represent far smaller class-size than most teachers and students are currently dealing with.

There's also some useless research suggesting that a majority of teachers would rather have a $5K bonus than two fewer students in class. This research comes from Dan Goldhaber, Michael DeArmond and Scott Deburgomaster, “Teacher Attitudes About Compensation Reform: Implications for Reform Implementation,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (April 2011) and we could spend some time trying to evaluate its bona fides, but really, who cares? We aren't talking about two students-- we're talking about enough students to significantly cut the teaching staff. This is like trying to argue that because you like having your back scratched with a one of those little backscratchers, you would undoubtedly like to be impaled with a rake.

But Roza has made a career out of this. She went to work for the Gates Foundation back in 2010. She's been cranking out work for EducationNext, as well as turning up with CRPE and Harvard and FutureEd.

My point is this-- it is not unlikely that DeVos has, over her years in the reformster biz, encountered something passing itself off as research to support this idea. She is certainly not the first person to say it out loud.

Her doing so points to many things, in particular the reformistan bubble, which has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people's money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, "Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I'd have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit."

In fact, the bubble includes an entire buffer system that stands ready to reject anyone calling bullshit, primarily by dismissing all attempts to defend public education as simply a ploy by the unions to gather money and power.

There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money ands set up a parallel education even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked-- actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they're talking about.

The shock and scandal and outrage is not that DeVos would offer up this class size bullshit on the Hill, but that she stands on top of a whole pile of educational amateurs who have been pushing this bullshit for at least a decade, despite the mountain of evidence and the actual teachers who speak against it. The biggest scandal is not that an agent of ed reform like DeVos would say something this dumb, but that she could be part of a larger machine that eats dumb for breakfast and then spits dumb back out for the rest of the day, for a decade, without ever listening to a dissenting voice. It's one thing to be ignorant, but to be willfully, deliberately stubbornly ignorant and to take pride in that ignorance, to actively preserve that ignorance like it's a precious flower and not a dried cow patty-- that's just inexcusable.

It's worth remembering that, with the exception of her stand on civil rights, there really isn't much going on with DeVos that would have disqualified her from the Obama-era USED leadership spot. If we focus strictly on her, we're letting a whole lot of people inside that bubble off the hook.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...