How to hurt struggling kids

o-BART-SIMPSON-CHALKBOARD-570Your columnist may be unique in having included in the final assessment of his post-graduate teaching qualification a quote from Bartholomew Simpson. This is not some pedagogic expert at a university faculty of education, but the perennial ten-year-old in the cartoon series, The Simpsons. 

In one episode Bart was assigned to a remedial class where he told the teacher: “Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?  [making “crazy” gesture]  Cuckoo.” Bart was right. The only way to help struggling kids is to give them extra classes. In Bart’s case the extra class might have covered correct use of the adverbial phrase “more slowly”. 

In 2005 New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, negotiated a deal with teachers’ unions that was designed to help struggling kids. Teachers would get more money in exchange for an extra 150 minutes of teaching each week. The 150 minutes would be focused on kids who most needed help: around one third of children would attend these classes with no more than ten in each class.

Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, has undone the deal. The extra 150 minutes teaching has been cancelled, though it seems unlikely that he plans to claw back the extra money that teachers have been paid to do the teaching. 

It is true that the City is in worse financial shape than in 2005. Perhaps de Blasio believes that the only way to give teachers the raise that he presumably believes they deserve is to cut their hours. But if that is the aim, why cut the hours that were specifically devoted to helping the kids who needed most help?

The Mayor’s office claims that the scheme didn’t work, though no studies have been done to show this. And the claim seems remarkably counter-intuitive. Extra teaching does not work? That would be a depressing finding – had any study actually found that. It suggests, perhaps, that nothing can be done for these kids, or that there is something very wrong with the teaching. 

He also claims that the scheme is inflexible. That, at least, is true. The Schools’ Chancellor wanted three 50 minute classes per week. The unions wanted five 30 minute classes a week. They compromised on four 37½ minute classes. That’s really something that needs to be determined citywide and not left to local principals? 

The reasoning is certainly weak, but the result is very clear. The Mayor has taken away 150 minutes of teaching per week from the students who need the most help. This is not a problem that can be addressed by the usual liberal demands for more resources. Pay rises for teachers may attract more and better quality people into the classroom, but there is a huge deadweight cost that the money has to be paid to the present teachers too. It also can’t address the relative difference between stronger and weaker students, since all will benefit from better teachers. 

The only way to help the kids who are struggling is more teaching that is aimed specifically at them. Otherwise you leave them behind the rest of the class and trying to catch up by going more slowly. Even a ten-year-old in remedial class can see that that’s cuckoo. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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