A miracle. That’s what it has to be.
Ellie Herman is a successful English teacher in a California charter school that is showing some great progress with students in a poor neighborhood.
But here is her description of a recent day’s lesson: “The kid in the back wants me to define ‘logic.’ The girl next to him looks bewildered. The boy in front of me dutifully takes notes even though he has severe auditory processing issues and doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Eight kids forgot their essays, but one has a good excuse because she had another epileptic seizure last night. The shy, quiet girl next to me hasn’t done homework for weeks, ever since she was jumped by a knife-wielding gangbanger as she walked to school. The boy next to her is asleep with his head on the desk because he works nights at a factory to support his family. Across the room, a girl weeps quietly for reasons I’ll never know. I’m trying to explain to a student what I meant when I wrote “clarify your thinking” on his essay, but he’s still confused.”
And it’s now 8:15, and she’s behind.
Herman’s powerful piece about the challenges facing a teacher appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps with modest changes, a teacher could write the same in a Baton Rouge school, or one in a school system even more severely challenged in St. Helena Parish or elsewhere in our state.
She wrote in part to dispute a view by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that class sizes can get larger so long as an excellent teacher is in charge there. What her account reveals is that “in charge” is very relative.
With 31 students, a couple with learning disabilities and some with the profound life challenges listed above, how can she provide the personal attention children need to be taught to write?
“My largest class last year was 34. My smallest was 20,” Herman said. “And I can assure you I was a whole lot more ‘extraordinary’ in my smallest than in my largest.”
Count us as fans of Duncan, but the teacher’s view is a powerful one. In America we are not necessarily in the same situation as competitors, from Finland to Taiwan to China, where more homogenous societies and a more rote approach to learning allows larger class sizes to be effective.
And as Herman noted, many children in more affluent families, whether in Los Angeles or Baton Rouge or Taipei, will get lessons and other advantages denied to the poorest students. Further, Herman’s account questions another popular conceit of education reformers: We spend plenty on education, and money is not the problem.
Maybe not, but money at Herman’s school was tighter, so her class sizes inched up to compensate. Charter schools in Louisiana are public schools, and thus almost entirely funded by the per-pupil allotments of taxpayer money. If costs rise, whether from medical or pension costs of retired teachers, or the costs of lunches or insurance or whatever, class sizes will tend to creep up.
“I understand that we need to get rid of bad teachers, who will be just as bad in small classes, but we can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence,” Herman wrote. “Our children — even our children growing up in poverty, especially our children growing up in poverty — deserve to have not only an extraordinary teacher but a teacher who has time to read their work, to listen, to understand why they’re crying or sleeping or not doing homework.”
The resource question for Herman’s school is a real one, if it gets in the way of an excellent teacher doing an excellent job.