This week's post is written by Danielle Asher, the Statewide Early Childhood Education Campaign Coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education and the Lead Organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition.
We have a tradition in this country of giving apples to our teachers to show appreciation for the work they do day in and out educating our children. Well, according to Wall Street Journal commentator Andrew Coulson those red deliciouses would be better replaced with pink slips.
This past Tuesday, the Journal ran an opinion piece by Coulson, of the right-wing Cato Institute, entitled "America Has Too Many Teachers." While one day I might try and have my piece, "America Has Too Many Conservative Think Tanks," published in the journal, for now I'll settle for a refutation of his flawed arguments.
Despite Coulson's imaginative title, he rehashes the same tired anti-teacher arguments that privatization advocates often make: that public schools have “warehoused three million people in jobs that do little to improve student achievement” and that these educators would be “working productively in the private sector if that extra $210 billion were not taxed out of the economy each year.”
I'll be the first to admit that Coulson is right on point that U.S. student achievement is lackluster. While there has been steady research published in the past few decades showing how our students lag behind other nations, let's just take one example.
According to the Department of Education, only 15% of Americans are fully literate. That's 264 million Americans who have some kind of shortcoming in "understanding and using" information from prose, documents and basic math, according to the DoE's comprehensive 2002 study. Worse yet, a large portion of those millions are "functionally illiterate", or unable to critically process written information given to them. If you accord weight to Thomas Jefferson's argument for free public education that "Democracy can not long exist without enlightenment", then these numbers should be enough to keep you up at night.
So if we agree it's critical to improve education, we're presented with some choices. Coulson's thought is that by bringing the profit motive into education, we can achieve greater results using fewer resources. Well, recent history provides us with some good example of how schools cope with reduced funding.
In recent years, New York State has drastically cut school funding, in spite of being required by the successful Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit to provide additional funds for the neediest schools districts. Unsurprisingly, these cuts disproportionately affect low-income students. The Alliance for Quality Education found that in 2011, poor school districts had their funding cut by an average of $843 per student versus $269 per student for the wealthiest districts.
Less funding means fewer teachers, and fewer teachers means bigger class sizes. What's strange is that Coulson's article completely ignores the proven link between smaller class sizes and improved performance. Firing three million teachers would result in larger class sizes and weaken public education nationwide. In the school term of 2009-10, the percentage of school districts nationwide which fired personnel increased from 11% in 2008-9 to 44%. During that same year, the percentage of districts increasing class size more than tripled from 13% the year before to 44%. In light of these facts, Mr. Coulson’s proposal that we remove nearly half of America’s educators from our public schools is a prescription for the outright sabotage of public education.
While larger class sizes hurt all students, they hurt those from low-income families the most. For example, the Tennessee STAR Project found that while students in smaller classes reaped the greatest learning gains, this was especially true for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, the American Psychological Association has found that students from schools in low-income areas face additional challenges, leading them to enter high school an average of 3.3 grade levels behind students from higher income areas.
When Coulson points to private education as a model for public school to follow, noting the higher achievement of students in these schools, it is precisely because they're able to provide small class sizes, and cater to students from higher-income communities. By refusing to acknowledge this, Coulson and other supporters of a for-profit school system are willfully distorting reality.
We have to decide as a society what we want to prioritize. If people like Andrew Coulson truly believed education is a priority, they would put their money where their mouth is. Giving all children a solid education means giving additional funds to poor school districts where the children face additional hurdles. These additional funds can primarily be used to provide additional teachers, giving disadvantaged children the proven benefit that a smaller class size can provide. In our state, Educate NY Now, a project of the Alliance for Quality Education and other groups is working to help focus the state's priorities back on education.
Long Islanders have two choices: Either we show our children that society values them and is willing to invest in them; or we go against all available research and place the futures of our children in the hands of those looking to profit from them. We can't afford to have two Long Islands, where stark differences in education between places like Wyandanch and Roslyn make it hard to believe they're in the same country, let alone twenty miles apart. So, when faced with this reality, what choice will we make?