COLUMN: Getting real on dropouts; Mass hirings alone won’t fix problem; invest in a strong staff

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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One of the concepts newspaper readers sometimes have trouble with is the divide between the editorial staff and the news staff.

The folks who write our editorials, on the fourth floor here at The Dallas Morning News, are good people. But they don’t have any say in what I write, and I don’t have any say in what they write.

It won’t surprise you that we sometimes disagree. So excuse me while I get out my bone-picking tools.

In an editorial last week, they addressed a big issue: How to keep more of Texas high school students in school and marching toward graduation. Texas has a lot of dropouts every year – depending on how you do the math, more than any other state. Lots of those are Hispanic kids with poor English skills.

The editorial board’s first recommendation: The Legislature should give more money to schools so they can hire more bilingual teachers and cut class sizes.

The logic seems impeccable: A teacher can do a better job with 18 students than she can with 30. So shrink classes and you end up with better results, right?

Unfortunately – no matter how well intentioned the idea – I suspect that going on a hiring spree wouldn’t have the impact some hope for.

Cutting class size means you have to hire a lot of new teachers. And that means giving jobs to a lot of people who might not be the most qualified.

The most famous case was California, which in 1996 began a massive, multibillion-dollar effort to reduce class size. A few years later, the state hired a blue-ribbon panel to analyze the impact all that spending had had.

The discouraging result: Researchers couldn’t find any evidence that smaller class sizes had boosted scores – even a smidge.

Whatever benefits were gained through smaller classes were canceled out by the fact that schools had to hire 29,000 new elementary teachers in three years. And a lot of the new hires weren’t particularly qualified.

Before the initiative, 1.8 percent of teachers were uncertified. After the hiring spree, 12.5 percent weren’t. And because the most qualified teachers often prefer to work in the relative comforts of the suburbs, poor and minority students were disproportionately hard hit.

If you’re looking to increase the number of bilingual teachers in North Texas schools, you’ll run into the same problem. At the risk of offending the unemployed, if you’re a qualified bilingual teacher in North Texas, chances are extremely good that you already have a job.

Just to fill their current positions, districts are already being forced to hire questionably qualified bilingual teachers. They’re hiring Hispanics with poor English skills, or whites and blacks with poor Spanish skills. Or else they’re hiring people with good language ability but little or no training in how to teach.

Talk of a teacher shortage is usually overblown. There are plenty of good history and English teachers who can’t find jobs, for instance. But a decent bilingual teacher is a hot property. There aren’t a lot of them sitting on the sidelines.

Adding a lot of new bilingual teaching positions would mean hiring even more people with sketchy qualifications.

So what should we do? I’ll throw out two ideas.

First, invest in training programs that can build a better pool of potential bilingual teachers.

There are very few issues that will have a greater impact on Texas’ future than how its Spanish-speaking students are educated. And there would be worse ways to spend the state’s money than on an aggressive campaign to give people the language and teaching skills they need to succeed in the classroom. Consider it a Marshall Plan for education – a big investment that pays off for decades to come.

If you want to hire more qualified bilingual teachers, first you’ve got to create them.

(For the record, the folks who write our editorials agree.)

Second, consider investing in people who can help kids but don’t suffer from the supply-and-demand problems that bilingual teachers do.

For instance, a good school counselor can do a lot to help kids stay on course. But at the same time schools have been grabbing people off the street to be bilingual teachers, they’ve been cutting back on counselors. It’s not unheard of to have 1,000 students assigned to a single counselor.

The result is there are often more qualified counselors without jobs than there are bilingual teachers. Putting some of them back to work could help keep kids connected.

All else equal, smaller classes are better than big ones, and more teachers are better than fewer. But if Texas wants to make a big investment, it should be realistic about the potential returns.