Fear and information

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Last week, I interviewed several parents and teachers from St. Paul about class sizes in public schools. (I’m working on another article that hears from the district as well as the union.) In interviewing parents and teachers, what I found was not that they didn’t think class size was a problem, but that they were all cautious about speaking up about it. Though they wanted progress on the issue, some feared that talking about the problem would drive students away from public schools. 

Alec Timmerman, a teacher at St. Paul Public Schools, said it most succinctly: 

“I can tell you that discussing class size, and other struggles is like walking a tight rope. On the one hand, if we illustrate and illuminate the difficulties we are facing because of budget cuts, it just solidifies the stupid myth that urban schools are doing poorly, and they are a bad place to send kids. Then those of privilege send their kids elsewhere, and it just exacerbates the problem because our concentration of high needs kids gets even greater. On the flip side, if we don’t speak out about our class size ridiculousness, how will it ever get fixed?”

Timmerman wasn’t the first person to express this sentiment. I’ve spoken to many others — teachers, parents, administrators — who all have made similar statements that there may be problems, but if we talk about them too much, if these problems are in the “media,” then more parents will take their kids out and send them to charter schools or private schools.

I understand the sentiment, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for scaring anyone away from public schools because of an article I wrote. But at the same time, I believe that if there’s a problem, it doesn’t help to not talk about it.

Public engagement about struggles that schools face requires accurate information. There is not always an easy answer. These issues are complex, and certainly enrollment, and the impact that charter schools’ popularity has on urban schools, affects the resources that public schools have. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore real problems.

Some promising initiatives are going to be tried out in Minnesota in the coming years, thanks to millions of dollars of funding that our state has received through grants such as the Race to the Top, Promise Neighborhoods, and the I3 grant. An important piece of each of those grants will be evaluation and assessment of how the programs are working. We all hope that they’ll be enormously successful, but there needs to be accountability too.

I’m not a PR person. I can’t be a cheerleader for public education, that’s just not what I do. I’m not a parent, so I don’t have a personal stake in the matter, other than my own values. I believe all children have a right to a decent education. I believe, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed on Friday, that education is an investment, not an expense. What I’m trying to do is present issues that arise, as accurately as I am able. Information adds to productive discourse, and we can’t make positive changes without it.