(submitted in response to various Plain Dealer editorials on education published on Sunday, April 18, 1999)
Letters to the Editor
The Plain Dealer
1801 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH, 44114
April 19, 1999
Even while conceding that some classes are too large and that the greatest benefits can be had in grades one through three, the Agenda ’99 editorial asserts that Cleveland’s teachers union has “a self-serving agenda” and is “really more interested in a bigger membership pool.” The proof offered for this claim is “for every study that indicates cutting class sizes improves results, another finds that gains are limited” and “the truth is that Cleveland does not staff its classrooms adequately today.” Putting aside for the moment the purported validity of “every other study,” the inadequate staffing of teachers in the district is the result poor efforts by the district’s administrators, not teachers. Besides, what is the result of not having enough teachers? Larger class sizes! If your editors had their way and all classrooms were adequately staffed, wouldn’t this serve the teachers union’s “agenda” and indeed increase the membership pool? Doesn’t this contradict the editorial’s main objection to reducing class size? Or does the Plain Dealer just wish that there could somehow be more teachers with a smaller teachers’ union?
It seems to be of no interest to your editors that among the “dueling studies” on class size, most are fraught with inaccuracies (such as confusing student/teacher ratio, which can includes librarians, counselors, and instructional aides, with class size) and invalid methodologies (such examining a class for just a single year or failure to distinguish “reductions” of 30 to 25 students from reductions of 20 to 15). The real problem is not an overabundance of studies, but rather the lack of scientifically valid long-term studies. Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) and subsequent Project Challenge are widely recognized as the most exhaustive in this area and leave little doubt that smaller classes (between 15 and 20 students) provide substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement. STAR further proved that the improvements gained from reducing actual class size (for example, a class of 15) are not gained by merely reducing the student/teacher ratio (for example, having a teacher and a teacher’s aide in a class of 30 yielding a student/teacher ratio of 15 to 1). But why let something as insignificant as fact creep into a fiery editorial argument?
Barber is even sloppier and more inflammatory in her column. After rhetorically asking when will educators stop restating the obvious, she quotes a non-existent April 13 article saying: “Beginning in 2002, fourth-graders will need to read at grade level to advance to the fifth grade.” She works up a good amount of righteous indignation over the fact that “more than half of Cleveland’s fourth-graders flunked the state’s reading proficiency test in 1998” and blames this on social promotion which “keep[s] from having to deal with teachers who confuse ‘to,’ ‘two,’ and ‘too’.” However, the dirty little secret of the 1998 proficiency results is that by next year’s standards (the ones that will count), more than half of all fourth-graders in the state flunked the reading, math, and science sections. In addition, the original Scott Stephens article actually appeared on April 14 and was not an article on social promotion but on (surprise!) the teachers union’s upcoming forums on smaller class sizes.
From where did Barber get the idea that social promotion was to blame for the district’s poor showing? She cites a parents’ survey showing that 70 percent opposed social promotion. However, an examination of the Ohio Department of Education’s records does not support the logic of her inference of such a cause-and-effect relationship. Cleveland’s 1997 retention rate (the percentage of students held back in the same grade) for fourth-graders was over three times greater (3.8 %) than the state average (1.1%). The percentages skyrocket by the high school years where over half (57%) of nine-graders (more than five times the state average of 11%) and nearly one-third (32%) of eleventh-graders (more than ten times the state average of 3.2%) are held back. Cleveland is much less likely to promote students than other districts in the state and its retention rates have been climbing since 1993! There is even less evidence to support her belief that many teachers cannot distinguish homonyms.
When citing that less than 22 percent of fourth-graders passed the state’s reading standard, it would have been nice to see Chris Sheridan mention that only 42 percent of students statewide met the standard and that, for the most part, Cleveland’s fourth-graders are outperforming students in similar districts in her “Low Numbers Challenge Byrd-Bennett” piece. But overall, only Sheridan showed any capacity to cite educational data properly and interpret it logically. Your current editorial policy on accuracy in educational reporting seems to be: One out of three ain’t bad!
Barber, near the end of her ranting, stated that while Clevelanders remained optimistic that schools will improve, “more than 75 percent acknowledged that they weren’t well-informed about their schools.” Sunday’s Forum section demonstrates that the Plain Dealer editorial staff is nearly equally uninformed at 67 percent. Nevertheless, I do agree with Barber’s closing opinions that “the more you know, the more outraged you get” and “what really needs doing…[is] shaping up…accountability.” But these judgments best suit your editors, not Cleveland’s schools.
Milton Alan Turner