Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Happy George Washington’s Birthday! Remember how our first President could not tell a lie? That brings up the sad, strange story of teeny, tiny class size – the highly expensive and highly ineffective panacea that is part of the claim for needing more money by the Omaha Public Schools.

Through its equity lawsuit and its attempt to take over neighboring suburban districts, OPS claims disadvantaged kids need more adults per pupil in to learn to read, write and figure.

Go figure.

The evidence says otherwise. (See the link at the bottom of this story.) If little old moms and taxpayers like me can find that out easily, OPS has no excuse for pretending not to know.

It’s not more people. It’s the right teaching methods. OPS could easily switch to a back-to-the-basics style of instilling literacy and numeracy in disadvantaged kids, giving them the long-sought level playing field they deserve. But noooo. Instead, it just wants more and more money to keep doing more and more of the wrong-headed things, involving social engineering and Political Correctness, that have been demonstrated time and time again not to help a whit.

That’s why test scores in many OPS schools have actually gone DOWN despite markedly increased spending in the last few years.

OPS already has its smallest class sizes by far in the schools that are struggling the most. That means it has put much more staff in those schools than in the schools with better test scores. In the last five years, according to the OPS budget (
www.ops.org/budget), the OPS staff has grown from 5,866 people to 6,428, an increase of 9.5%. Most of that staffing increase has gone for services to low-income and non-English speaking kids, according to the district.

So now, if they get more money from the lawsuit or the consolidation try, no doubt they will use it to hire even more staff and make class sizes even smaller in the 23 or so inner-city, struggling schools. With average teacher salaries in OPS at $40,020 (2004-05 figure), adding still more staff per pupil can get mighty expensive in a hurry.

Yet what are we really getting for the extra expense, estimated based on a Coopers & Lybrand school-by-school study a few years ago at $1,500 more per pupil in the inner-city schools than in the rest of OPS? Ironically, the smaller the class size, the worse the test scores. Consider the standardized test scores and pupil-to-teacher ratios of the top five OPS grade schools in terms of test scores, and the bottom five:

1. Columbian 96th percentile 22.07 pupils per teacher
2. Fullerton 93rd percentile 22.58 pupils per teacher
3. Harrison 90th percentile 18.33 pupils per teacher
4. Dundee 87th percentile 20.83 pupils per teacher
5. Picotte 87th percentile 19.37 pupils per teacher

58. Druid Hill 33rd percentile 15.42 pupils per teacher
59. Liberty 33rd percentile 14.29 pupils per teacher
60. Kennedy 30th percentile 13.29 pupils per teacher
61. Wakonda 30th percentile 13.53 pupils per teacher
62. Miller Park 28th percentile 12.54 pupils per teacher

(California Achievement Test scores from the Aug. 8, 2005, World-Herald, and K-6 pupil-teacher ratio data from

Remember, what government funds, government gets. There’s not a shred of evidence that more money in general, or more staff in particular, will do a thing to help these disadvantaged kids do better in school. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite – the larger the class size, the better the test scores.

Yet OPS is duping and deceiving its own parents and patrons into thinking that throwing more money at the problem is going to solve it. No sale. It hasn’t anywhere else. It won’t here. And when more money fails to bring disadvantaged children up to speed academically, the parents and the public erroneously blame the children – rather than the ineffective, overly expensive system that is doing the wrong things for the kids.

That’s why we really, really need to get these kids into private schools, where – eureka! – class sizes are much bigger but test scores are much higher. Why? Because the right methods are being used. The OPS mindset is just too far gone to be able to give low-income kids what they need.

Of course it is true that children from more advantaged homes with more income and more stability, and higher-IQ parents who are college educated, come to school with bigger vocabularies and better social skills than their disadvantaged peers. And it is also true that it is much easier to teach the basic skills of learning in the early grades to smaller groups of children than larger ones.

But there are limits. Sometimes the big dollars obscure weaknesses in the methods being used. If they’re expensive, they must be the best, right? If they’re expensive and they don’t work, then it can’t be the program – it must be the teachers, or the students. Right? Wrong! Paradoxically, when it comes to teaching reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, the opposite is true. Cheaper is better. It’s the old “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” rule – and keep it cost-efficient, too.

What educators such as those who run OPS keep missing is that the specific learning advantages that middle- and upper-class kids come to school with do not cost a lot of money to provide to kids. Basically, they’ve been talked to and read to more, and interacted with more, by adults. Their experiences with language and meaning go beyond just a TV screen and the inside of a day-care center, and have had good nutrition and good habits in a peaceful home.

The implication is that a lot of vocabulary gain missing from poor kids’ home lives can be made up in language-rich and text-rich preschools and early primary grades. But instead, OPS and other public schools are in to “discovery learning,” “process,” “child-centered learning,” and “best practices,” which are basically nonverbal free-for-alls for young children where their language “teachers” are other illiterate young children and the teachers don’t think it’s their job to directly instruct, but just to guide and hope the kids catch on to language skills through their own play.

It’s so obvious. Highly-structured classrooms, direct instruction by the teacher, and systematic, intensive, explicit phonics for reading instruction, would do tons more for the underachieving schools than hiring even one more person. Only a small handful of OPS schools have teachers who even know the difference between phonics and Whole Language reading instruction, though. The University of Nebraska doesn’t even teach phonics instruction in its teachers’ colleges. The situation is nigh on hopeless.

How do we know that cheaper is better, and class size doesn’t matter? From mountains of research on what works with low-income kids. One repository of hot tips on that very subject is the book No Excuses: Lessons From 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools, by Samuel Casey Carter (Heritage Foundation, 2000). Here are the seven traits of these heroic schools who have done so much with the most challenging student groups:

1. Principals are free.
2. Principals use measurable goals to establish a culture of achievement.
3. Master teachers bring out the best in a faculty.
4. Rigorous and regular testing leads to continuous student achievement.
5. Achievement is the key to discipline.
6. Principals work actively with parents to make the home a center of learning.
7. Effort creates ability.

Did you catch that?

Did you notice?

Not a word about smaller class sizes . . . more staff . . . more money.


For plenty of evidence about the folly of expecting smaller class sizes to vault low-income kids skyward academically:


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