Black Swan in Potemkin Village

by Martin Harris

Martin Harris

Accusations that your humble scribe has a simplistic view of things have some basis in truth. I’d argue, for example, that public education class size is important because 1. Education is typically the most expensive line item in State and local budgets; 2. Staffing is the single most expensive line item in public education budgets; 3. Direct instruction (teachers in classrooms) is the single most expensive line item within the staffing budget; and 4. Class size is the single most important determinant of teacher employment, because scope of curriculum, the other possible determinant, is pretty much fixed across all schools in a system as a result of State curriculum rules. That logical sequence is pretty simplistic. From it, I’d conclude that State class size rules and/or local district class size policies are pretty important: typically, they set the instructional-cost 60% of the annual budget (per-pupil expenditure) paid for through taxes. Ergo, I conclude that government decisions to control class size are deserving of media coverage.

Historically, the print and electronic media have done a quite-creditable job of reporting on the systematic reduce-class-size-to-increase-student-achievement policy, in effect for K-12 class size over the post-WWII decades, from 27 in 1955 to 15 today. Even your humble scribe can simplistically conclude that it has been the official class-size reduction policy which has been the single largest driver of annual per-pupil spending increases, from less than $2000 (in current, not nominal, dollars) then to over $8000 today. Some States -Vermont for example-reduced class size even more (down to 10.4 in 2008) and raised annual per-pupil costs even more (up to $15316 in 2009) thereby causing (simplistic conclusion) increased levels of taxpayer displeasure, probably because (simplistic conclusion) the reductions in class size which were promised to produce increases in student achievement haven’t done so. From the first Federal achievement tests in 1970 to the present, student achievement charts have shown as level lines, with scores consistently in the low 200’s out of a possible 500, against upward spending lines and downward class size lines. But now, as proof of the (simplistic) survivalist-politician-fear-of-voter-displeasure theory, a few States have begun sneaking minimum-class-size policies into their rule-books. So far, my amateurish research has found three: TN, MO, and (surprise!) VT.

In earlier column-inches in this space, I’ve reported on the TN minimum class size “policy” -K-3, 20; 4-6, 25; 7-12, 30. You can judge its seriousness from the actual class size (shown as p/t ratio, which is close) in TN: 14.3-to-1 in 2008. In MO, the “guideline” calls for K-2, 25; 3-4, 27; 5-6, 30, and 7-12, 33. You can judge its seriousness from the actual class size (shown as p/t ratio, which is close) in MO: 13-to-1 in 2008. And now, it turns out, VT’s own State Department of Education actually adopted, on 8 Sept 10, a minimum-class-size policy-guideline. It calls for no fewer than 15 students in all grades and grade-clusters from K to 8, and numbers ranging from 15 to 20 in various 9-12 curriculum areas. Were it (subjunctive contrary to fact) serious, it would cause a near 1/3 decrease in the direct-instruction component (60%) of the total school budget. Gloriosky, Zero; Who Knew? Maybe I missed the SED precedent-shattering policy-changing press release, or the subsequent breathless in-depth, deeply-analytical reportage-with-enlightened-commentary in the several VT papers I read.

As an amateur and not a full-time highly-skilled-professional Fourth Estater, and fearful of peer disapproval, I choose not to opinionate on the decisions of various Vermont media managers and editors not to report on that rare-and-unexpected statistically-improbable black-swan event in Vermont education: the official adoption of a State Department of Education minimum-class-size policy-guideline. Instead, I’ll raise this question: why have all three States (and maybe more I haven’t even found yet) adopted these new rules even while showing no past history, present inclination, or future intent to act seriously on them? The TN policy, for example, goes back at least three years, possibly further. Maybe it’s the Potemkin Village syndrome at work.

Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition: an impressive façade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition. It comes from the Russian legend of the Prime Minister Potemkin, anxious to avoid the displeasure of Czarina Catherine, building false-front village facades -Potyomkinskiye derevnii– throughout the Crimea so that the Empress would be suitably impressed with his effectiveness during her visit. If you’re not into Romanov Dynasty politics, you might prefer the New York City 1982 example of Mayor Ed Koch ordering up the same sort of thing, using painted plywood in the burnt-out-building windows of South Bronx tenements, or the same sort of thing for the same sorts of reasons in Cleveland today, according to a Wikipedia entry on the subject.

You can see its applicability to the fiscal side of the productivity collapse in contemporary public education: a system which praises students, not for actual achievement but for “trying really, really, hard” can point to these policies and guidelines and (perhaps credibly) attempt to neutralize criticism by claiming “yes, we hear you, and we’re incredibly responsive, and we’re trying really, really, hard, but these things take time”. Historical question: which Potemkin Village plywood-and-paint-jobs were ever intended to become, in the fullness of time, real construction? Ya ne snaiou.