Arthur Levine

Can We Have Smaller Classes And Better Teachers?

VTR Date: September 21, 1999

Guest: Levine, Arthur


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur Levine
Title: Can We Have Smaller Classes And Better Teachers?
VTR: 9/21/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And in his own unassuming way, my guest today may be one of the most important people in America.

For Arthur Levine is President of Teachers College, Columbia University where he and his colleagues teach teachers to teach our youngsters … and that surely is one of the most, if not the most important tasks Americans are confronted with today.

Let’s face it: if it’s done well, this nation will be okay. If not, we’ll be ever more and more in trouble… profoundly so, though perhaps not inevitably so.

But that brings me to a New York Times Op Ed piece that Arthur Levine wrote early in 1999. In it, my guest notes: “these days you can’t run for public office, whether the City Council or the United States Senate without having an education plan. This phenomenon…has been evident in two recurring themes nationwide: the push to raise standards for teachers and the call to reduce class sizes”.

He says that “Both of these ideas are excellent. The problem is that they clash, and if we don’t plan carefully and quickly, we’re likely to achieve neither.”

Indeed, it’s this point that I’d like to ask Dr. Levine to elaborate upon today… particularly in light of his final paragraph: “Raising teacher certification standards and shrinking class size are among the few areas in which we can have our cake and eat it, too – but only if we act now.”

And I particularly want to ask my guest if this is just a reflection of the Times polyanna requirement that every Op Ed piece end on an upbeat note … however contradictory it may seem. Which way, Dr. Levine?

LEVINE: I was actually serious when I wrote that. I wrote that even before I submitted it. I think we can have both. I really do.

HEFFNER: But on the one hand, you say that it is such a difficult problem. You say, “Dueling goals”, this is titled “Dueling Goals for Education”. And the other hand you say, “We’re going to do it”. Now is this a reflection of your optimism?

LEVINE: No. It’s a do-able thing. Let me see if I can explain it. The real problem we’re facing is this country needs about two million new teachers … just from retirements. And then what’s happened is the population is growing. So even if we just replace the teachers who are going to retire, we need even more. The population’s going to grow by roughly 15% over a two decade period. What that means is, when you combine the third ingredient, which is that all those candidates for Governors offices, Democrats and Republicans were all saying “let’s reduce class size”. We’ve got the two million complicated by the increase in population, further exacerbated by the call to reduce class sizes. So you need a huge number of teachers. Maybe you need two million four hundred thousand. Now, how do you do that? And reduce class size? What you need to do, well, what this country needs to do is first strengthen education schools and get better graduates out of them. The second thing we need to do is provide some real incentives, so people will actually be willing to take these jobs. Salaries are so low at the moment that the best students move on to other kinds of jobs … they’re higher in status and pay better. And the third thing we need to do is start going for non-traditional populations to enter our classrooms.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVINE: There are whole bunches of people who train to be teachers 30% who never became teachers, get them back in the classrooms. Take people who have “teacher-like” jobs … get people who are teaching the military; get people who are teaching in corporate classrooms. People who’ve been downsized, parents who’ve been at home. Get them into classrooms, give them the instruction they need and turn them into teachers. The equivalent of not ninety-day wonders during World War II, but essentially education targeted those people and the kinds of skills they have, then we have a whole new pool for teachers.

HEFFNER: Now, does this mean that you’re saying lower your qualification for these teachers.

LEVINE: No, that’s what we’re going to have to do unless we do some of the things I’ve talked about. Right now what states are doing is talking a “mean” game of increasing standards. And in fact we’re seeing standards being increased right and left across the country. What they’re doing at the same time is hiring teachers on an emergency basis to fill the classrooms they don’t have enough teachers for. So that a majority of all teachers in the United States who are teaching physics and chemistry now have no qualifications to do it. The danger I guess is this that we’re actually going to diminish considerably the quality of teachers unless we take steps now to increase quality in the ways I talked about before.

HEFFNER: You know, you may think those things come together easily. And I’m sure Dr. Levine that they do … for you. But you’re going to have to make me understand, or I would beg you to make me understand how they do, when you say “We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that”. What are the indications that we are ready to “this” and to do “that”? And I don’t mean in terms of campaign speeches.

LEVINE: The thing that stands out for me is more than any time in the last few years Governors are really worried. The conversations I’ve had with Governors over the last several months show that they’re real worried that they’re not going to have people in the classrooms. And what they’re also worried about is all those angry voters who see all those unqualified teachers in classrooms. Right now the American people are saying that education is one of the most important issues on the national agenda. And increasingly what I’m seeing at the State level is that Governors’ recognize “I gotta do something, or I’m not going to get re-elected”. So that I see for the first time a sense of seriousness on the part of State leaders. I also see a sense of opportunism. This issue is just so hot that when I spoke recently … I spoke recently out of state, out of New York. And I finished my speech, and I’m on a buffet line after the meal, and the guy standing in front of me tells me “You know I’m head of the Education Committee in the Upper House (or Lower House) of this State. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know anything about education”. And I’m thinking “great, this is great”

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Now you have your listener.

LEVINE: [Laughter] And he said, “but I’m not stupid, I know if I do a good job I can ride this all the way to the Governor’s mansion”. There are people like him all over this country who are looking for ways to act and are ready to act on any platform that makes sense. And so the steps that I suggested a few moments ago, are real simple. And State can do them … all they need is the will-power.

HEFFNER: No, you don’t mean that. You mean the will-power which manifests itself in terms of the financial resources. It’s not the will-power alone, is it?

LEVINE: Well, they’re going to spend this money anyway … they’re going to…

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

LEVINE: … they’re going to hire teachers to fill those classrooms. It doesn’t cost anymore to have a qualified teacher in that classroom, then to have an unqualified teacher in that classroom. Indeed, going after the pools of population that I talked about a minute ago, the para-professionals, the people who are teachers in other fields, the retired teachers…they can all be brought back Simply make it attractive enough to them to come back. And there you’re right, that will cost a lithe extra money. But not dramatically more extra money.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s the question I do need to put to you- Say, “a little extra money, not dramatically more money”. Can you give me some sense

LEVINE: Of what this would cost?


LEVINE: The problem is that States aren’t going to do this in any way that makes any sense. So what we’re seeing right now is States are offering bonuses to new teachers and what we’re going to go into, if States don’t increase the pool, provide more teachers, we’re going to see them go into a bidding war for the teachers that are out there.

HEFFNER: Is that happening now?

LEVINE: Absolutely. States are … Massachusetts, for example, just started a bonus program “come sign up with us (like a ballplayer), and we’ll give you a rookie bonus”. We’re going to see more and more of that. The one item that probably makes a lot of sense right now, is actually a piece of Federal legislation … coming from Senator Schumer …he’s created what he’s called The Marshall Plan for education, or for teaching. And what he’s promising now is loan forgiveness. If you become a teacher we’ll forgive your loan if you do it for a certain number of years. The Bill also goes after math and science teachers People who want to go into those professions where it’s hard to find people. To try to find middle people who are willing to go back into the profession. That kind of comprehensive approach is going to make a lot more sense than producing teachers, then bidding for the people who are already out there.

HEFFNER: What sign is there that we’re going to go in that direction. I know what the man on the banquet line or the food line said to you. It’s a sexy subject. What do you see happening literally, physically happening, taking place in terms of the statements you make about what we need.

LEVINE: There are, first. First we talked about legislation in Washington. Washington’s actually been more fruitful in legislation on teaching and education than a lot of States.

HEFFNER: Along what lines?

LEVINE: What we’ve seen is a whole series of programs come out of the White House, come out of the House and Senate that were targeted in improving the number of teachers in the United States. And that’s not a federal responsibility, so it amazing to see the Federal government take the lead in what’s essentially a State responsibility. But we are seeing is … we’re seeing some States North Carolina is a good example North Carolina has developed programs … much like the ones I described, which are going to increase the size and the quality of its teachers force. So that there are examples one can point to. The problem is inaction by most States. They need to get going now if they’re going to avert a much overused word, a “Crisis” in teaching.

HEFFNER: What do you mean avert it? You seem to have described one.

LEVINE: But what happens is, as a country Tocqueville noted this a long time ago we don’t solve problems as they come along… we wait for them to get worse and worse and worse and then we announce what they are is “a crisis”. And then what we as a country do is we mobilize our resources, we write reports on the horror that we face as a nation, we form countless volunteer organizations, government legislates randomly. We don’t so much as solve the problem as get bored with iii What I’m suggesting now is if we see government act today, tomorrow, next week, government has a far heifer chance of achieving the goals of increasing quality and actually reducing class size than they will in two years, or three years or five years, when what they’re going to have is a tidal wave of need in terms of the number of teachers in classrooms.

HEFFNER: This mailer of the numbers of teachers and the numbers of classrooms, divide them by the number of teachers … are you as convinced as many other people are that the small class, the smaller class is an answer to our problems?

LEVINE: No. That’s a wonderful question. Small classes work in certain subject areas and they’re very important in the lower grades. For other subject areas in later grades, classes can actually be larger. And the notion of reducing class size is one of those sound bites; it’s one of those things that just so appealing for a candidate to offer. It has enormous, enormous attractiveness to the voting public. Sure I’d like my kid to be in smaller classes. Will it solve the educational problems? No. As a mailer of fact, if we move into them quickly, it’s going to make them worse.


LEVINE: What’s going to happen is the rich, suburban districts, as they reduce class size and pay higher salaries, have easier students to teach. And we’re going to start drawing away the teachers from inner city schools. So what we’re actually going to see is the most affluent schools districts get better and better. And we’re going to see the poorer school districts get poorer and poorer for lack of teachers.

HEFFNER: Is that what we’ve seen over the years?

LEVINE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Why would it be any different at all next year, a decade from now. I mean how could be anticipate it being any different? What ever scheme you come up with, those who have the resources are going to approve them, put them into effect, they will cost heavily in resources and the teachers from the poorer schools will be drawn away.

LEVINE: I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t have a good answer for you. What I can tell you is everything you just mentioned is going to happen unless States take action for it not to happen. We can give advantages to teachers who choose urban schools; now we only offer them disadvantages. We offer them harder learning environments, we offer them bigger classes and we offer them lower salaries, If we switched the kinds incentives we offered and said, “you know what, there’s a bonus if you teach in the inner city”. “You know what, you’re going to have smaller classes; there’s a salary advantage in teaching in inner cities; we’ll forgive your student loans if you teach in the inner cities” There’s an idealistic generation of young people who really want to teach I spoke with a young woman at the University of Colorado, and what she said to me was “for my generation teaching’s the equivalent to the Peace Corps”. This young woman desperately wants to become a teacher. Sixty four percent of college students nationally are involved in community service activities. There’s a huge pool from which to draw if we provide the incentives to those who will teach in the inner cities. We also know that para-professionals in schools are willing to stay in the schools systems they are at if we provide additional training. So we take somebody who hasn’t finished college, or hasn’t even started college…is working in the school, provide him with a college education, and they’re likely to remain teachers in inner city schools. We also know the Peace Corps volunteers, when they come back are very willing to work in inner city schools. Not only that, they want to teach math and science, two of the subject areas in which we have the least number of teachers and need the most.

HEFFNER: What are the responsibilities or the … I don’t mean the blame necessarily, but maybe it comes down to that, but when we start pointing our finger where do the teachers training … teacher training institutions, the Teachers Colleges, where do they stand in this regard?

LEVINE: Teachers colleges are too weak

HEFFNER: Too weak?

LEVINE: Too weak Not of strong enough quality. We have twelve hundred teacher education schools in the United States … too many of them take students who are very well qualified, have faculties that aren’t among the best in the country, have students when they graduate who can’t pass certification requirements. We as a country need to do better We talk the talk, we wring our fingers… I read editorials in newspaper all across the country, bemoaning the state of education schools. It’s time for states send minimum requirements of what they expect for their teachers and make education schools accountable for the results. If they can’t graduate enough students who are able to pass exams, they shouldn’t be permitted to graduate students or offer programs.

HEFFNER: Now, they don’t take the students who are up to snuff, in your estimation, is that because there aren’t that many students who want to…

LEVINE: Yeah. A sad story. I met with one of our graduates from Teachers College, and before he went to Teachers College had been in an Ivy League university. And he’d been a third grade teacher for the last three years. And he said, “You know, I love what I’m doing, but I look at the people who graduated with me, they’re making more money, they’re in higher status jobs. My parents are saying it’s great that I had this experience, but now it’s time I got on with my career. I go to parties and I talk to people and we’re having a great conversation, and they ask what I do for a living, and I tell them, and they remember their glass needs to be re-filled” – Desperately wants to remain a teacher and what he’s facing is lack of self-esteem, lack of status for the profession, and poor salaries that are more than overshadowed by friends and class mates It’s a hard world for our top students to put up with.

HEFFNER: The … the dichotomization between being trained to teach and having mastery of subject matter … I’ve got to get into that because I need to know what you think about that [ worked the assumption that you were born a teacher. Tell me about the teacher training.

LEVINE: That’s really what it’s about, isn’t it? There are some core people in The United States who say, “Look, it’s a craft. It’s like being a journalist. All you need to do is get experience”. There are others who say a profession You need training, like a doctor to become a teacher.” And I think I fall … no, I don’t think … I fall decisively in the direction of profession. I’ve read all the reports that say we what ought to do is train undergraduates in college in a subject matter… – math, science, history … and then send them out as apprentices and let them learn to teach that way. And I think it crazed… it’s just a silly answer for me. Arid the reason is that beyond knowing a subject matter, a person has to understand how you plan a curriculum, how you actually teach in the front of a class room, how you involve students. They need to understand how kids learn. They need to understand how you manage a class room. There are all kinds of things associated with being a teacher that don’t come naturally, in fact have gotten harder over the years, because in order to make it in this society the skill levels that kids need to have to get jobs are higher. The kids they’re going to face in the class room are demographically more varied than they’ve ever been before We know more about how kids learn that we’ve ever learned before, known before. When you put all of that together with a plethora of new technologies to bring things into a class room, you can’t have a novice enter the class room. The reality for me is I wouldn’t want a surgeon to work on my body who’d only learned basic science. I’d really like that person to have a little experience treating people before that person got to me. In fact, I’d like to know that person did some … a whole bunch, a lot, a gross of successful operations before I was that patient. We need to expect as least as much from a teacher.

HEFFNER: Of course, where we are is that the argument goes the other way so frequently. That this training to be a teacher, to be a professional seems to take the place of knowing the field. Now what do you do about that?

LEVINE: It’s not either/or. The ideal for me … and maybe because I come from the institution … I really like the way we do it at Teachers College. What we demand is that for somebody who’s going to be a teacher in math, they have studied math as an under graduate, that was their major. And then we’ll take them for fifteen months, and teach them the teaching part. So what they end up with walking into a class room is both understanding of how one teaches, and command of a subject matter. The combination’s critical. Neither one is adequate alone. And before when I talked about the problems of education schools … there are too many that only teach pedagogi, that only teach how you teach and students enter the class room without content.

HEFFNER: You know it’s a … it’s a hackneyed question, but your best teacher … or the teacher that you remember as having taught you the most, whatever that means. Skilled in both or skilled essentially pedagogically, and the subject matter just followed?

LEVINE: You know something … I don’t have a clue. What I do remember is… when I think back to my school days, the best teacher I had was a woman … at a time in which that was the only career open to her. She could have been a teacher, or she could have been a nurse. What she did probably was get an education at, I’m willing to bet. City College and what she got a City College was some subject matter and some pedagogi, but she got both. So that or at a time in which regardless of what this woman really got in education, that captive market of women who filled class rooms isn’t there anymore. They can go into business, they can go into law, they can go into the top professions. And we really need to think about how we’re going to get the most able people into our classrooms with the best preparation.

HEFFNER: What’s the most important legislative or governmentally sponsored program that you would point to … what’s most important to come out of Washington, or come out of the state legislature?

LEVINE: What I really … we need a comprehensive plan, there’s no one-piece that’s going to do it. We need a piece of legislation which will attract people to teaching, provide incentives for doing it. We need a piece of legislation that will target areas of undersupply of teachers, urban schools, math and science. And we need a piece of legislation that will give teachers who are already teaching a reason to stay on the job, since we’ll lose half within the first three years of the lime they start.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that you would prefer that we look more and more toward Washington where a larger program, a general program is … can be successful, where on the State level perhaps we can’t find such success Do you want to do away with that … or modify that traditional American educationer’s local philosophy.

LEVINE: No, I really don’t. The only reason for looking toward Washington is that Washington can do it tomorrow


LEVINE: If we do it on a state by state

HEFFNER: … you say we need to do it tomorrow

LEVINE: Absolutely. If we do it on a state by state basis, we’ve got to wait for fifty different entities to act, and that’s going to take forever. If I had my preference, I’d rather have every state act tomorrow. But, in lieu of that happening … yeah, I’m willing to take the lead from Washington. I’ve love Washington to create the program and offer matching dollars for any state that blows suit.

HEFFNER: It’s going to happen?

LEVINE: I think we’re going to see the legislation coming out. Earlier I talked about a piece of legislation that was filed by Senator Schumer


LEVINE: It’s a good piece of legislation. What I’d love to see is apiece like that with bi-partisan support come forth. The issue’s large enough. It fits both the Democratic and Republican agendas in terms of the Republican agenda for economic growth. The Democratic agenda for support for schools. There’s a nice mid-ground for both and I’d like to seem them come together around that kind of legislation. I think they’re going to feel more an more pressure to make that happen … for this to happen. I think they’re going to feel more and more of the press and others leaning upon them to make this happen. But, no, I don’t know that it’ s going to happen. It needs to happen.

HEFFNER: You talked about the fact that on the gubernatorial level, the state level, the governors are biting the bullet. Do you see them looking more and more toward a master plan from Washington?

LEVINE: No, Not at all. No. The states don’t want Washington involved in this for the most part

HEFFNER: Even though they can’t afford it themselves?

LEVINE: The states can probably afford this better than Washington can, actually. This is a time in which things are financially very good for states. And it’s a question of what they invest in. Are they going to invest in prison? Infrastructure? Health care? Or are they going to invest in education. What strikes me is that if they invest in prisons we’re essentially saying is … or health care at some level … we’re essentially saying we’d rather treat people after they’re broken then when they’re young and we can influence their lives, turn them into strong taxpayers by investing in the front end of their lives when possibilities are enormous, rather than the back end of their lives when they need to be fixed. It doesn’t make any sense. States for the most part have the money to do this. The question is do they have the will to do this.

HEFFNER: That’s the right point to end … and I know that your answer is they do, and should and will do what they need to do. Thanks Arthur Levine for joining me today on The Open Mind.

LEVINE: A pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.