Looking back on the first week

This week marks the beginning of the second phase of my career.  After spending more than a decade at the middle school where I began teaching, I was given the opportunity to open a new kind of public school.

I’ve written before about the unique characteristics of this Leadership Academy, but those words were written in the abstract: before there was a building, a faculty, or any classes.  After five days of teaching in this special place, I have discovered some important facts about myself and about teaching.

First, it’s clear that starting a new school is not an experience that you can anticipate well.  The challenges I expected never materialized, while unseen details rose up from the shadows to offer some resistance.  In the end, we defeated all obstacles that presented themselves, but we know that more lie ahead.

Second, in the debate surrounding single-gender education there are those who see separation of the sexes as a way to teach boys and girls differently and those who see this as sexism and reinforcement of stereotypes.  What I have witnessed this week is that, while there may be real differences in the ways that boys and girls learn, in the end all middle schoolers are the same.  They are precocious, impulsive, curious, socially awkward, and yet eager to please.  We don’t need to customize how we teach to the needs of boys–we need to customize it to the needs of our unique students.

And, that brings me to the most important point of all.  Not surprisingly, the biggest factor that has made this first week so successful for me and my students is that I have “only” 25 of them in each Science class.  I have just enough to be able to see the struggles and successes of each young man.  There are not too many for me to differentiate regularly.  Their numbers are not sufficiently large to create behavioral, logistical, or workflow nightmares.  On the contrary, my class sizes (although still above what has been scientifically proven to be most effective) are just right for creating a student-centered learning community.  They are perfect for developing teamwork skills and providing small-group instruction.  Classes of this size provide the interaction and diversity that students crave, yet allow me to facilitate meaningful educational experiences for each of them.

While there is still a lot of the school year left, I can rest easy this weekend.  I can enjoy this short break because I walked out of my darkened classroom on Friday evening with the sense that we are on the cusp of something great for the future of education.

Or, at least for me.

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photo pin cc


Class Size Effects Graphically

This is just a quick note to share a link (which itself was shared with me by Erica Speaks) that connects two of my passions: data visualization and class size effects. The author of Conceptual Mathematics–who doesn’t reveal much about him/herself but appears to be a math teacher–writes an interesting blog using simple graphs to convey complex ideas about the social issues and education reforms.  It’s not a particularly aesthetically appealing site–it resembles a Geocities site from 2002–but its exactly that simplicity that carries the message so clearly.

In “Effects of Class Size on Learning“, the author uses simple mathematical calculations and 8-bit graphics to illustrate some very important points.  Here’s my favorite:

I think what I like best is that there is no way to argue against the simple mathematical truth that he is demonstrating: more students in a class means less instructional time and effort per student.

How can we make this idea more obvious to the Powers That Be?


They’re not jobs, they are your children’s classes

This is just a quick note to vent some frustration regarding the state budget conversations going on all over the country.  Teacher payroll is a huge part of the expenses in many states, and so it is natural to consider teacher layoffs as a solution (or part of a solution) to a budget crisis.  I get that.

[climbing onto soapbox]

What I don’t understand is when politicians, pundits, and even the media report on “preserving teacher jobs” or “saving teacher positions” or “reducing the educator workforce” as though schools were corporations.  This isn’t about jobs.  I know that unemployment is high and many hard-working Americans can’t find work, but the potential that I may not have a job is not why laying off teachers is so bad.

Losing teachers isn’t like a corporation reducing its workforce.  We can’t downsize our schools.  We can’t reduce the number of “customers” that we serve.  In fact, the numbers increase every minute of every day.

No, all that firing teachers achieves is increased class size.  It takes the same number of students and divides them by fewer classes.  Your children (or grandchildren) are packed into the same size classroom with the same single teacher who now must find a way to meet the individual needs of more students.  The leaders of our future are given less opportunity for interaction and the education expert in the room is given less resources and time to spend with each child.  The data is pretty clear: larger class sizes negatively impact learning.

Nobody wins when we cut teacher jobs.

[soapbox now vacant]


The Wrong Way to Fix Class Sizes

Last month, I wrote about a topic that is as dear to my heart as any educational issue: class sizes.  For teachers, there is no greater example of the ills of our public education system than the growing sizes of our public school classrooms. Lots of data show that this is the single most important factor that we can fix to get this big ship turned around.

flickr user stijn

Of course, class size is closely tied to education spending (smaller classes = more teachers = more taxes), but the state of Florida has enacted a potentially disastrous legislative solution.  The General Assembly has decreed that any school system exceeding the class size limit must pay steep fines ($3000 per pupil).  This seems to me to be a case of faulty economics.

Economics boils down to incentives.  Use laws and regulations to encourage people to do what needs to be done, say economists.  In the case of Florida’s schools, it would seem pointless to punish districts when their state funding has been cut and tax revenues are down in drastic ways.  It’s like reducing my son’s allowance and then docking him further when he doesn’t pay his share of the expenses.

On the other hand, educators in New Zealand are striking because of class sizes.  They want additional compensation when class sizes exceed 30 students.  Again, I see an economic problem here.  Class sizes are rising primarily because government income is shrinking.  Where are districts supposed to get the funding to pay teachers if they can’t afford to lower class sizes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should let class sizes grow unfettered.  However, I think that we need to tie the consequences of these growing classes (e.g., teacher burnout, student disciplinary problems, test scores) to the forces that have put them there.  Don’t ask cash-strapped districts to correct the problem in the midst of an economic downturn.  Perhaps, when state legislatures cut education funding, forcing teacher layoffs, districts can be given discretionary money from bond referenda or state lottery proceeds to correct the problem until tax revenues improve.  Or, even better, end the antiquated practice of funding our schools through property taxes altogether.

Our public education system is too important to ride on the ebb and flow of financial cycles.  Class sizes are the hull of this great ship.   Let them get out of control or throw blame where it doesn’t belong, and this ship will take on water even faster than it already is.

Am I crazy?  Do you have a better idea?  Please let me know!


Everyone Knows Its Class Size

I spent most of this Saturday morning on the couch fighting in vain against a cold that has been going around my family.  With a remote control in hand, I perused the hundreds of channels for hours because I didn’t have the energy for anything too engaging and I didn’t have the patience for anything too banal.  And so, I ended up watching a little bit of a lot of shows and TV movies.

After watching “Sid the Science Kid” for a few minutes and “Dino Dan” on a couple of kids’ networks, I caught a few minutes of some classic movies from the past 30 years.  It was four hours into this mind-numbing marathon that something occurred to me.  Ever the vigilant scientist (even when mucus was threatening to drown my brain), I tested my hypothesis.  It took a couple more hours of “research” with the remote (and later with my mouse) to backup my findings with hard facts.

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