Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reducing Class Size VERSUS "Best" Instructional Practices (and other rants by yours truly)

A recent commentary "It's Not All About Class Size" appeared from Ken Jensen on the discussion list of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM):

I agree with the assertion that, "it is possible that smaller classes will actually widen the domestic achievement gap between the haves and have-nots." and the explanation as to why this may occur is well thought out. However, the article is void of any suggestions as to how we might increase achievement for all- both raise test scores and close the gap.

I would like to propose that a teacher with a well developed sense of best instructional practices does much more to increase achievement for all students than lowering class sizes. In fact, I would want this teacher's class to be full to the brim so that as many students can take advantage of this learning environment as possible, and I would expect this teacher to raise the achievement level of all his or her students in spite of the large size.

So much has been written about what makes for good instruction and yet it is so elusive in America's schools. Let's take the money the politicians would use to lower class sizes and instead use it for in bedded professional development. The coaching model as developed by Lucy West and Catherine Casey is making a difference in the district where I work, and I promote it everywhere the conversation comes up.

My response, which of course is to more than just what Ken wrote above:

Seems a bit puzzling as to why this is an "either/or" situation. EITHER we decrease class sizes OR we try to improve the quality of teaching? Why not both if each is important?

Effective classroom coaching is an important part of the story, no doubt. So is, I think, reduced teaching hours per day, more opportunity for collegial observation and interaction (as long as the school creates and supports actual professional development during the non-teaching hours, rather than offering more planning periods that are spent grading or talking about baseball (not that I oppose giving teachers time to grade, but not INSTEAD of meaningful collegial interaction and professional development. And much as I like baseball, I've sat as a guest in far too many math teacher lounges where that was the main subject, when bashing individual kids or certain "kinds" of kids was not, and no mathematical or pedagogical issues were ever raised at all)). So is lesson study, which incorporates features involved in coaching, planning, collegial feedback and observation, etc.).

As to the idea of cramming as many bodies as possible into the classrooms of the "good teachers." How long before they become burned out by their increased grading load? How long before you destroy the classroom culture by making the carefully-crafted dynamics impossible to rebuild or sustain? I think that's a rather questionable suggestion at best, unless of course you assume that the "magic' this teacher is doing is completely grounded in some sort of fabulous lecturing, a doubtful proposition in my experience.

And as long as I'm scatter-gunning here, I am for some reason skeptical of the phrase "best instructional practices" for a couple of reasons. First, I think teaching remains far more an art than science (not unlike pretty much everything else in the social sciences. I'm working on a blog entry about the relationship between psychoanalytic practice and jargon and educational practice and jargon. Suffice it to say that the more the jargon, the less impressed I am by the what's being spoken of, assuming I can piece out what that might be). The notion of "best" instructional practices sounds a little too smug and reminds me of how the word "authentic" gets used in the writing of some educational researchers and pundits: if what YOU are doing is "best" or "authentic," where does that leave me? I have this same reaction to the Core Knowledge Foundation gurus, who tout the solution to our educational woes as "teaching content." Obviously, since I don't subscribe to their religion, I must not be teaching content. Or at least not the "right" content.

I prefer to think about instructional practices as a palette from which we choose depending on the vicissitudes of daily teaching reality. It is not a scientific process. If it were, I could mail in my lessons (and my instruction). Yes, there are some things I choose quite consciously not to have on my particular palette. And some things I have in very small supply and use sparingly by design. Beyond that, I can't claim to know in advance what classes will be like other than in broad strokes, and the rest comprises details that emerge as part of an organic process that cannot be accurately foreseen. Stuff happens when you're dealing with human beings. And lest we forget, the main instrument we use to both teach and to assess the effectiveness of that teaching on a moment-by-moment basis as well as upon latter review is a flawed one: ourselves. That's fine, since we're all in the same boat. But I for one am tired of being asked to pretend that teachers or educational researchers, teacher educators, coaches, curriculum developers and authors, administrators, or others involved in the instruction process are objective scientists or anything of the sort.

Set rant to [OFF].

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