More Reasonable Responses to My WSJ Piece

Yesterday 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.

2 Responses to More Reasonable Responses to My WSJ Piece

  1. niki hayes says:

    First, I will say that I agree with most of your conclusions. Then I will say that Special Education is indeed a black hole from which few students ever reappear. Special ed is NOT supposed to be a “place” but a “program.” Its goal should be to get kids OUT of the program and back into survival mode (at least) in regular classes. That rarely happens. Data, if it were available, would show that. (The last time I checked, “emotional disturbance” was the fastest growing category.)

    I will also say that I retired early because kids are much harder to teach today. I spent 19 years as a math teacher (sped, regular ed, gifted ed) in high-poverty and/or gang-affiliated middle and high schools. My last nine years were in middle income and mostly white schools because I was placed there as a principal. (As a fish out of water, I asked the supt. why he put me in first school and he said, “You’ll find out.”) The sense of entitlement, disrespect, and willingness to cheat in order to be in the top 10% for scholarships was unbelievable. The parental expectation for acquiescence to their child’s demands shocked me. (Of course, I was used to few parents being involved in their child’s education.) I had toughened during my previous 19 years and the supt thought that would help me stand my ground. I did, but it was exhausting.

    I found that working with my tough kids in the 1980’s and 1990’s was far more rewarding than working with my more affluent students.Our cultural degradation is serious, all the way into early grades today, in all “subgroups” of students. My frustration is with the adults who have created this situation, not with the kids.

  2. momof4 says:

    The severely disabled students are unlikely candidates for eventual “promotion” to regular classes, whether their disability is cognitive, behavioral/emotional, physical or ASD, but most of the kids with specific learning disorders should be taught specific coping strategies that will enable them to return to regular classes, with limited support.

    However, my impression is that the spec ed teachers/philosophy is pretty firmly wedded to the accommodation model, which is fine where the disability cannot be ameliorated – blindness, deafness, paralysis, missing limbs etc. but not really appropriate for specific LDs. I’ve read, and been told by parents, that many spec ed teachers simply give kids answers but don’t teach them coping strategies. That was certainly true of a dyslexic relative, whose parents had to send her to an outside professional for several years, but who taught her to cope well enough that she had no IEP for the rest of her academic career (she just graduated from college).

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