ANALYSIS | When Romney visited a Pennsylvania school and convened a panel on education, he got an earful from teachers. If he doesn't watch out, he'll get the same from parents of students this fall in the election. His comments show he has a lot to learn about teaching and schools.
Romney stumbled badly during the panel when he lectured educators on how class size does not matter. He was challenged by a charter school teacher who said, "I can't think of any teacher in the whole time I have been teaching, 13 years, who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit. And I can't think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher."
In response, "Romney cited a study by the McKinsey Global Institute that he said 'proved' that having fewer students in a classroom didn't make as much of a difference as most people believe," according to that story from Emily Friedman for ABC News.
Unfortunately, Romney showed his ignorance of social science research by saying the study "proved" anything. As I inform my students, the standards for proof are pretty high, and the McKinsey study doesn't prove anything.
In fact, I actually read the McKinsey study. It merely cites three other studies on the subject of class size. So I researched one of the three, which is posted on-line. If you read it, you find that even this critic of small class sizes found that they made a positive difference, especially in younger grades, and in some lower income settings. Moreover, the consensus is that smaller class sizes are better.
The standard for success is usually defined by (you guessed it) a standardized test. If the debate over No Child Left Behind Act taught us anything, it's the uselessness of such tests. Now Republicans and Democrats are united in rolling back the fetish this law had for standardized testing, recognizing that such a yardstick means little in the real world. Even Asian countries whose students rock on these tests in math and science, but can't produce an engineer, are looking elsewhere for a better education model.
Romney compounded his education woes by suggesting earlier in the week that low income public school students should be able to choose their own public school. Such plan is sure to face howls of disapproval from middle income parents who will make too much to take advantage of such a plan. The stampede toward some schools is likely to lead to a logistical nightmare for teachers, administrators, and parents as well, perhaps reducing the quality of the schools who are the recipients of the onslaught! Already, his campaign has begun to walk back such comments. It's not the first time. Romney flip-flopped on NCLB already.
He also insulted our public schools, claiming they provide a "third world education." Even international standardized tests stacked against America's scores don't support that statement.
But Romney does avoid an F. He has called for higher pay for teachers (though tied to those ineffective standardized tests). And he has called for more local flexibility in implementing NCLB, which is a start.
Moreover, I wouldn't give his opponent the highest marks. President Obama can't seem to shake his support for "Race to the Top" grants, which are "NCLB lite." One shouldn't be too surprised that massive cheating scandals have followed when teachers had their job tied to student performance on standardized tests.
An NPR story showed that Romney was a pretty bright guy and a hard worker at Harvard, so such blunders come somewhat as a surprise. But if he's still a good student, he's got time to correct his education mistakes. I suggest that he study what teachers and administrators do, listen to parents, and learn from them, instead of lecturing them on their area of expertise. He should stop consulting those with political goals that supersede education excellence.