I’m a Bad Person

That’s right: I’m bad.  And so is my husband.  At least according to Allison Benedikt, who wrote in Slate that only bad people send their children to private school.  Her argument is basically that if people with money stopped opting out of public schools and used their resources instead to improve them, those public schools would get better.

So before I start posting about Robe Roberson’s incredible class at Campbell Hall Episcopal Day School, a private school in North Hollywood, if you agree with Allison Benedikt, I should tell you that my husband and I sent our three kids to private school.

The truth is, I don’t disagree with Benedikt in theory.  I’m not convinced schools would make the radical turnaround she suggests, but I think some improvement would be likely after, as she says, two or three generations.  But no matter what my husband and I believed intellectually or what our values were, we did not send our kids to our local school in Hollywood.  I didn’t just hear rumors about its badness.  I volunteered in its classrooms, which were overcrowded and did not have the resources to deal with the extremely broad range of very high-needs students in the room.  The teacher was nice, but so overburdened she barely noticed my visits.  My phone calls to the principal offering help went unreturned.

I’m not saying I couldn’t have made a significant difference if I’d stayed and fought.  Quite possibly I should have, and I deeply admire people who do that.  What I’m saying is that as a working mother with three young kids at home, I made the probably-not-commendable decision not to devote my life to improving our local school.  Instead, my husband and I paid a jaw-dropping amount for private schools where our kids were in classes taught by caring adults who knew them really, really well–adults who were role models and who in several cases have become lifelong friends.

I know these relationships also happen at public schools. Jennifer and Dennis are that teacher for many of their students.  But you’re a lot more likely to know your individual students really, really well if you teach classes of 15 than if you teach classes of 50.

When I taught, I didn’t have 50 students in any one class.  I had about 30, on average, which makes me incredibly lucky by LAUSD standards.  We taught six classes (one was an academic support class, but it had a full curriculum), so in addition to having more students, we had a larger course load than most teachers at private schools.  Sometimes my students who had graduated would come and see me after school.  This deeply gladdened me, as you can imagine, especially when they were in college, as they often were.  But I’m going to be honest: if I was on the tenth hour of a 12-hour day and was so exhausted that I could hardly walk, when I was grading the 50th of 90 papers, sometimes my heart sank a little as my beloved former students popped their shining faces into my classroom at 5 pm.

(I want to say, in case my former students read this, that I love you very much and am always happy to see you.  But as you sometimes pointed out in dismay just from clapping an eye on me, I was sometimes really, really tired.  Please come see me now when I am better rested. I miss you and am so proud of all you’ve accomplished.)

I’m not saying my own children deserved individual attention any more than anyone else.  In fact, what I’m saying is the opposite. I’m agreeing with Benedikt that my students in South L.A. deserved individual attention just as much as my children—and often needed it more.  So though I cannot claim any moral high ground, it feels worth taking a moment to unpack what of value, exactly, is apportioned so unequally by this system, because so much of it has to do with individual attention, something our current discussion on teacher effectiveness rarely acknowledges.

The current belief, which is bizarrely axiomatic in educational policy these days, is that class size does not matter.  To hold this belief is in effect to say that private schools are not conferring enormous privilege.  This statement makes no sense.  Though obviously there are other factors like selectivity, philosophy and reputation, an individual relationship with a teacher is the essence of educational privilege. It is the privilege my children enjoyed and that my students lacked, not because I didn’t care but because as a teacher I was exhausted and burned out.  The more I cared, the more burned out I became; this is the definition of burnout, to care profoundly about a job you are too overextended to do well.

At least that’s what I’ve believed for years. Now Jennifer and Dennis have challenged my assumptions by being excellent even when faced with classes of 50.  Which is why I’m fascinated to observe Robe’s class at Campbell Hall.   Here, I’ll see a great teacher with a class of 15 students.  According to the rumor mill of Los Angeles private schools, Campbell Hall is not a crazy money scene.  In fact, it seems to have a reputation as the nicest private school.  Though the school is Episcopal, the student body is interfaith. In terms of race, the overwhelming majority of students are white.  24% of the families receive some kind of financial aid, but the remainder pay over $30,000 per year per student.  There are no sibling discounts.  (All of this is on par with other L.A. private schools.)  To compare their demographics with Jennifer’s class, click here.  To compare them with Dennis’, click here.

In effect, in watching Robe’s class, I put my beliefs to the test. Is there a difference between teaching a class of 15 and teaching a class of 50?

As my students used to say, aw, hell yeah.  I’ll explain why in my next two posts.


5 thoughts on “I’m a Bad Person”

  1. Hi,

    It’s Ben here, the anonymous person mentioned in prior blogs. I will try to keep up with this blog as much as possible. It is already so incredible. I hope this gets wide viewing, but I hope it doesn’t become a crazy comment place either, if you know what I mean when you read blogs these days.

    With class size, I’ve had great discussions with people on “both sides.” The people who argue for class size reduction would totally use this above post as an example why, and I’m guessing they’d use the next two future posts also. Hollywood star Matt Damon got criticized for advocating for public schools but sending his kids to private schools somewhere out here in Los Angeles. But I don’t think this makes him a bad person. He just wanted something that our public schools can’t offer. Anyhow. The people who argue against CSR tend to say something to the effect that the money could be spent better elsewhere – like intervention, tutoring, programs, etc. Class size reduction is incredibly expensive.

    Here’s an example:
    60 students
    2 teachers with 30 students = $60,000 x 2 = $120,000
    3 teachers with 20 students = $60,000 x 3 = $180,000

    So the anti-CSR folk are saying that $60,000 would be better used for other things. The thing is, whenever policy folk argue about CSR and its “effect” they are strictly talking about standardized test scores from what I can tell. Yes, it’s the only objective way to measure, etc….

    The thing is,

    1. Ben, you kind of got cut off there, but let me take advantage of that to say that I would not disagree with the anti-CSR folks if they actually were talking about intervention, tutoring programs, etc. But I have never seen that energy turned in the direction of using that money to develop excellent enrichment programs for kids in underserved communities. I only hear it used to justify large classes and not raise school budgets.

      1. Oops! Yes, good point.

        So I meant to write:
        The thing is, there’s something that I don’t understand about people who argue against class size reduction. Bloomberg has said something to the effect that he’d rather pay a super effective teacher (presumably measured by a state multiple choice exam result) double their salary for double the number of students. That’s like 60 students probably. Would you want your elementary school child with 59 other students because that teacher on average gets his/her students to get maybe 6 or 7 more multiple choice questions correct on an exam? (I came up with this number because the teacher Alejandro, who is mentioned in previous blog posts, had his students get 6 or 7 less multiple choice questions correct compared to other teachers on a 65 question test. I think on most evaluation systems being implemented these days this would put him on an improvement plan. Maybe he needed to change his teaching practice no doubt, but I wonder if he wouldn’t have been able to impact the lives of so many students in the way he did. Perhaps he would have sacrificed relationship, listening, patience, empathy, story, to focus on improving outcomes as measured by benchark exams or CSTs.)

        On a related note, according to EdSource, CA has the second largest class sizes in the nation (if I remember correctly from their data card in 2011). In fairness, salaries are somewhere around third place in the nation (but CA is expensive compared to other states). But spending per pupil is around 47th or so.

  2. Class size matters when it comes to grading homework and papers, which if you’re an English teacher takes a lot of time and thought as compared to grading a multiple choice math test for example. Compare the CSR “debate” (my quotes indicate which side of it I stand on, being a “bad person” myself) with what’s going on in higher ed with MOOCs. “Massive” is great for global, low cost access to ideas and it helps students time shift (helpful for getting a additional training when you’re juggling a job and family), but it obviously affects the learning experience when there is virtually (ha!) no chance for a relationship to develop between teacher and student. And building relationships (mentoring, inspiring, supporting, caring) are critical when you’re talking about younger students, especially when those supports are lacking at home. Even college professors have TAs to grade papers and run smaller discussion groups in large lecture courses, so clearly expecting a high school teacher to carry a load of 100+ of students (even if it’s spread over several classes, 20 x 5) is not ideal and probably unhealthy for all involved.

    Keeping writing, I love hearing your thoughts and voice in these posts.

  3. Allison Benedikt’s article is emblematic of what’s wrong with the so many current discussions. While, yes, there may be some validity to her point — in theory — her refusal to acknowledge the larger picture; her lack of historical knowledge and/or research; her snideness; her disingenuousness; and her sweeping, attention-seeking statements don’t really elevate the discussion. They seem to be there mainly to elevate Ms. Benedikt. Her theories, which by her own admission would take generations to accomplish (which may or may not be true; one can’t tell as her timeline is conjecture and no methodology is offered in her article) are floated, along with a healthy dollop of her proudly stated judgements. Sure, as Ms. Benedikt states, she’s doing fine, but she’d be doing better if she offered practical solutions rather than polarizing rants. I wasn’t thrilled to be reading Walt Whitman in high school either, but I’m wary of someone giving advice on education while proudly announcing their own ignorance. I like your blog, though.

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