This is an open letter written to President Obama by Leonie Haimson, public school parent and executive director of Class Size Matters. She writes about the Obama campaign’s criticism of Mitt Romney for saying that class size isn’t all that important — something, it turns out, Obama administration officials have also said. A version of this letter first appeared on the Parents Across America website.
Here’s Haimson’s letter:
Dear President Obama:
Mitt Romney just went to visit a charter school in Philadelphia and got real push back from teachers when he said class size doesn’t matter. A video of their remarks is below. As a principal of a charter school pointed out,
“There was a study done by the University of Tennessee, a definitive study about class size and what they said was that in first through third grade, if the class size is under 18 those kids stay ahead of everybody else all the way through school, including classes where you might have 25 in the class and co-teachers. Those students lose their gains after a couple years. If you have small classes in those primary years, those most important years, that’s what makes the difference.”
This is the famed STAR experiment, probably the most rigorous experiment in the history of education reform.
Your campaign seized on Romney’s remarks immediately, through press releases and Twitter. Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for President Barack Obama’s re-election team, responded to Romney’s class size stance with a question: “What planet does he live on?”
“At his event today in Philadelphia, we saw Mitt Romney’s vision for education and it truly tests commonsense,” Smith wrote. “When confronted by teachers who know firsthand the benefits of smaller class sizes, Mitt Romney continued to insist – against all evidence – that larger class sizes are the answer to a good education. And he has even claimed that smaller class sizes ‘hurt’ education.”
And yet Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and most of the other members of the one percent who are currently involved in influencing or making education policy in this country live on the very same planet. They, too, have rejected the value of smaller classes. Like Romney, they send their own children to private schools where classes are capped at 16 or below, but think that class sizes nearly twice that size are just fine for other people’s children.
Indeed, your education secretary himself, Arne Duncan, has said nearly the same thing as Romney several times.
See for example this July 2011 interview with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, where Duncan openly dismissed the importance of class size, or this 2010 speech he gave to the American Enterprise Institute, where he urged districts to improve efficiency by making “smartly targeted increases in class size” and spend their funds instead on “online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology.”
He advised decision-makers to start “shifting away from class-sized based reduction that is not evidence-based” in the midst of budget cuts that had already forced class sizes upwards in many districts across the nation to thirty children per class or more.
Yet there is significant research backing smaller classes, though there isn’t any yet showing that online learning raises student achievement. IN fact, class size reduction in the early grades is one of only four reforms cited by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of your own Department of Education, as having been proven to be effective through rigorous evidence; and there are literally scores of controlled studies that show benefits from smaller classes in the middle and upper grades as well.
The worst part is that while your campaign jumped on Romney’s remarks like a trampoline, your proposed education budget slashes funding that districts can choose to spend on class size reduction and/or professional development by $620 million, and diverts it to a competitive grant program for “alternative pathways into teaching” like Teach for America. See the Parents Across America analysis here.
Your campaign is now asking parents and teachers to say what they think of Romney’s views on class size.
Do you really want to know what I think?
President Obama, you do appear to be a thoughtful man. If you disagree with what Romney said, you should rein in your own education secretary and ask him to take back his erroneous statements on the subject. Even more importantly, if you respect the priorities of parents and teachers as well as the best education research, you will immediately restore the money in your budget that districts can use for class size reduction.
Check out the video above of Philadelphia educators speaking truth to power — one of the few moments in this campaign season where real people have been able to talk back to politicians. I hope you listen hard to what they are saying.
And perhaps you should consider taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to speak to teachers and parents as well, about what they think about the importance of smaller classes, as opposed to the wrongheaded education policies pursued by your administration. We eagerly await this opportunity.
Leonie Haimson, public school parent and Executive Director, Class Size Matters.