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An Open Letter to Bill Gates: Higher Class Sizes will Drive Teachers Out

Dear Mr. Gates,

I am writing to you because you have been getting a great deal of attention for your ideas about education, and from my perspective here on the ground in an impoverished urban district, I think you might be making some mistakes.

I read your recent commentary in the Washington Post (How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools), and reports from your presentation to governors, where you advised them to raise class sizes in the rooms of the most effective teachers.

In your comments to the governors, you said "there are too many areas where the system fails. The place where you really see the inequity is the inner city. "

You presumably are hoping to redress this inequity when you make this proposal:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise.

I am glad you are aware of the inequities. But your suggestion that caps on class sizes be lifted does not suggest to me that you actually have much understanding of the nature of these inequities. First of all, do you actually believe that in the short time frame in which these governors are trying to balance their budgets, they are going to magically revamp their teacher evaluation systems so as to not only identify the best teachers, but also make sure that ONLY the best teachers have class size increases?

What is actually happening is that, partly buoyed by your suggestion that class sizes should not matter, there are going to be wholesale increases in class size across the board, for every teacher, at every grade level. In Oakland, principals have been told to prepare for cuts ranging from $300 to $900 per student. The only way to achieve such savings will be to lay off teachers and significantly boost class size. And there is no mechanism that can be put in place to reliably identify the top 25% of our teachers, no money to pay them extra for taking on these students, and if the class size increases were only limited to a fourth of the teachers, the savings this would provide would be inadequate. *(see update below)

In point of fact, the teacher turnover rate is one of the biggest problems we face in Oakland's schools. This instability makes it difficult to build the kind of caring, collaborative, reflective community that allows us to improve as professionals. This turnover is not a function of our teacher evaluation system. While improving our evaluation system is worth doing, it will not fix this problem. Getting rid of ineffective teachers is not the key. The key is keeping the good ones and helping them become better. A good evaluation system is part of this, but it is much more than this. We need to pay attention to the working conditions, and make sure teachers are well-supported.

One of the most important working conditions, especially in high poverty schools, is small class size. As a middle school teacher, my student load was capped at 160 a day. That meant about 32 students in each of my five classes. Just imagine 160 papers to grade every day, and you get a picture. It is not uncommon for teachers to spend half of their weekends grading papers. The quality of the attention we can give our students is diluted every time you add to that number. And if you are in a high poverty school, the chances are pretty much 100% that in every class you will have students who are currently experiencing traumatic events in their lives. I am talking about domestic and neighborhood violence, homelessness, eviction, parents incarcerated. As this report indicates, as many as a third of students in our tough neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These problems all seep into the classroom, sometimes overtly, and sometimes through acting out behaviors. And larger class sizes make these behaviors even more difficult to handle.

This is not just my opinion. There is a large body of research that supports a strong link between class size and student achievement. And I would be very surprised if the private schools your children attend have large class sizes. On average, private schools attended by the children of the wealthy have class sizes roughly half those in neighboring public schools.

As class sizes increase across the board, as they are likely to do, we are going to see turnover rates rise among teachers. I serve as a mentor for beginning science teachers, and have built a program to try to support and retain them in Oakland. Sadly, more than half of my own mentees are leaving this year, after working only two or three years as teachers. If you ask them why, they will tell you, that the stress and challenge of the job is simply overwhelming. All of them are promising, bright young teachers. They all have huge gifts to offer their students. But the challenges they face leave them feeling defeated. Increasing their class size will only make this worse.

You are one of the wealthiest men in our nation. Do you see the challenges our poor communities face due to inadequate resources? Are you aware that the top one percent of our people have more than a third of the net worth of our nation? And they keep getting more and more tax breaks? The best thing you could do for schools would be to launch a campaign aimed at getting wealthy corporations and individuals to pay their fair share of taxes, so that the public schools, which rely on tax dollars, are not primarily funded by the middle class, which is hurting so badly now.

Update: I was thinking about the math involved in Mr. Gates' proposal. Let's take a school staffed by 40 teachers. You identify 25% as the "best," and give these ten teachers four students more each. That means you have served an extra 40 students, allowing you to reduce your staff by ONE teacher. That saves you approximately $75,000 a year, in salary and benefits. But according to this proposal we need to pay these teachers more, so if we pay them say $5,000 each, we have an expense of $50,000. So our net savings is $25,000. This is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the cuts our schools are facing. Please check your math, Mr. Gates.

What do you think? What would you like to say to Mr. Gates?

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