More Reasonable Responses to My WSJ Piece

By 10/18/2012

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Two days ago I chronicled the unreasonable (and unfortunately predictable) reaction of the teachers union to my WSJ op-ed suggesting that there were trade-offs between hiring more teachers and quality teachers. I also received a number of reasonable, but still mistaken, responses attempting to explain the 50% increase in the teaching workforce without improved results by blaming special education and English Language Learners (ELL). A letter in yesterday’s WSJ succinctly stated the argument:

In 1970 many disabled and mentally handicapped students were denied access to public education. Today these students are guaranteed a public education until the age of 22. Also in 1970, about 5% of the U.S. population was foreign born, compared with about 20% today. Many of these children enter the education system with limited English skills and are provided services to improve their mastery of English. Such services were unheard of in many parts of the country even 20 years ago.

It is obvious from these statistics that many more special-education teachers and English-language specialists are counted in the teaching profession now as compared to 1970. Mr. Greene claims that math and reading scores of 17-year-olds are unchanged since 1970. I would submit that the teaching resources devoted to students, excluding teachers of special education and limited-English speakers, is close to unchanged since 1970.

There is a plausibility to this argument, but special education and ELL can neither account for the 50% increase in teachers nor can they be ignored when considering the stagnation in student achievement. Special education teachers constitute about 14% of the teaching work force and disabled students constitute about 13% of the student population. So, if we imagine, as the letter writer does, that many of these disabled students were denied access to public education, then the addition of teachers was roughly commensurate with the addition of disabled students. Excluding all disabled students and teachers, the reduction in student-teacher ratios between 1970 and 2012 would still have been roughly from 22 to 15. If you wanted to use as the starting point 1980, 5 years after the start of federally mandated special education, the ratio still drops from 18.6 to 15.2.

But of course not all disabled students were denied access to schools before federal legislation. Outside of the most severely disabled, the bulk of students now classified as disabled would have been present in school in 1970; they just weren’t being served very well. So, if we added a large number of special education teachers to better educate students who were always present but who we now consider disabled, it should have resulted in much better outcomes for those students. But overall outcomes are flat.

There is a disturbing habit among people who make the argument represented in the WSJ letter to act as if special education is a black hole from which no progress can or should be expected. Yes, they say, we hired more teachers, but that was for more special education students and you couldn’t expect that to result in any progress. But this is entirely wrong. Special education can and should result in greater academic achievement, so even teachers added in that category should be contributing to better aggregate outcomes.

All of these arguments also hold true for ELL except that ELL is much smaller and involves fewer teachers than special education. A critic could note that the world has given the US public education system more ELL students because of higher immigration, although the same cannot really be said of special education. Other than the exclusion of severely disabled students, whose numbers are quite small, the distribution of disabilities in the public school student population should be roughly the same today as it was back then given that most disabilities are genetic in their origin. It’s just that we didn’t serve many of those students well in the past and therefore should expect that achievement should be rising as we devote more resources to them. More teachers should be producing more achievement.

And yes, more ELL students might require more teachers to produce the same achievement. But in other ways our student population has become easier to educate. Unless students have become significantly more difficult to educate across all dimensions, it’s not possible to explain away the facts that we have 50% more teachers without any meaningful improvement in outcomes.

Several years ago Greg Forster and I addressed this in our Teachability Index, in which we tracked 16 indicators of the advantages or disadvantaged that students bring to school and found that overall students are somewhat less challenging to educate now than they used to be. And for a forthcoming book I have updated and improved upon that analysis and still find that students are somewhat easier to educate, so it should not require many more teachers to get the same results.

We can’t blame special ed and ELL to account for the lack of productivity in education as we’ve hired more teachers. The problem is that we’ve ignored the trade-offs between teacher quantity and teacher quality.

-Jay Greene

Comment on this article
  • Matthew says:

    “Special education teachers constitute about 14% of the teaching work force and disabled students constitute about 13% of the student population. So, if we imagine, as the letter writer does, that many of these disabled students were denied access to public education, then the addition of teachers was roughly commensurate with the addition of disabled students.”

    This is only true if class sizes for disabled and regular education students is the same. If a teachers serves fewer special education than regular ed students – which seems reasonable – then adding special education students should disproportionately increase teacher numbers.

  • Doug says:

    The problem with the conservative mind is the “trade-off” limitations. We need both higher salaries and smaller classes.

    The financial problem in America in schools involves spending far too much in the suburbs and not nearly enough in the inner cities.

  • jeffreymiller says:

    Jay, instead of basing your argument on aggregated stats from big bureaucracies, perhaps you would better serve your readership if you simply examined what real teachers of all specialities actually did in real districts and real schools.

    I know, I know, you want to make it seem like unions have exerted mighty powers over the electorate and state and local politicians in getting more teachers to pay dues but seriously, you have to examine data from all possible sources.

  • M says:

    I agree with Doug. I worked in an inner city school with classrooms of 30+, including classes made up of 20+% of students needing highly differentiated material. As one teacher, you can try your hardest to give a high level of attention to each struggling student, but it can be near to impossible depending on your situation. Even today, I work in one of the most affluent, high-scoring suburban schools, and there are still students I cannot reach when I see 210 students in 7 hours. There are also individual factors to take into account– some students have a high level of help at home, including parents and tutors, while others have little to none and work long hours after school. Especially in urban, inner-city districts, where students come with stronger educational needs and more disrupted home lives, I believe we do a disservice when keeping them in large, impersonal schools with class sizes of 25+. Looking at research on inner city schools, many report students “falling through the cracks” and parents and students report feeling a disconnect to their school and teachers. Imagine how we could change this if we broke up these struggling schools into smaller schools with more personal class sizes… Teachers would actually KNOW their students’ names (because believe me, I saw many teachers who didn’t know their students) and might be better able to help students on an individual level, giving them the more focused attention needed to succeed.

  • Marcus says:

    This is the blindest reprting of statistics I’ve ever seen. How does the author who proposes that the teaching force is increasing so quickly explain the steady growth in class sizes? Here in Southern California, the union contracted class sizes are AT LEAST 36. Are you trying to tell me that classes used to have 55 students in them? Ridiculous that such blather would be published without considering such blatant contradictions. How about the fact that public school enrollment has also increased dramatically in the same time period??? Ridiculous! Between 1985 and 2010, enrollment in public schools increased 22%! (NCES). That explains almost half of your growth in teachers right there. These blatant oversights also make all of your numbers dubious at best, dishonest at worst.

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