Gov. Bill Haslam told an assembly of some of the state's best rising senior high school girls this week that "putting a quality teacher" in every classroom is the very best way of raising student achievement levels - and that it hardly matters whether class size rises from the average number of pupils per teacher by state standards, to the state's highest permissible number of pupils per teacher.
What nonsense. Class size matters immensely, no matter how good a teacher is. Ask any teacher, or go visit a classroom.
Current state standards call for an average of 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade, though 25 students are permitted. For grades four through six, the average should be 25, but the state allows 30. For grades seven through 12, the average is 30 and the maximum is 35.
It is axiomatic among public school teachers, however, that a teacher's effectiveness and ability to reach individual students is inseparably linked to class size. That makes sense: the lower the number of students, the more teachers can involve students personally and mentor those who need individual assistance.
That's why the best prep schools here typically strive for classes of fewer than 20 students, and often much smaller. Small class size is especially important in schools with higher numbers of economically and socially disadvantaged and at-risk students. In circumstances where parents are not effective first teachers, classroom teachers do double-duty, and often have more student behavior issues. Then there are the issues of available resources, textbooks and technology, administrative support, regular professional training, curriculum improvements, among a host of other issues related to "quality" teachers.
We can only surmise that Haslam's praise for "quality teachers" as the touchstone for the state's educational success amounts, essentially, to a slick way of letting state and local governments off the hook for new school funding and hiring needed teachers in another tight budget year.
In truth, his reverence for "quality" teachers as the end-all, be-all of education should in no way be used as an excuse by the state and our county governments - and especially Hamilton County - for not hiring more teachers to keep class sizes smaller, or raising their pay to compete with higher-paying schools in North Georgia or more appealing private schools. In fact, relying on the myth that "quality teachers" are all that matters will only add to teachers' burdens.
Gov. Haslam's comments came in an address in Nashville to hundreds of rising seniors attending the Volunteer Girls State leadership program. He also used the "quality teachers" theme to justify the authority he successfully secured from the Legislature this spring to tighten teacher tenure standards.
He said those standards, which both extended the time needed for teachers to receive tenure from three to five years, and made tenure more conditional, were key to his efforts to "push our education (system) toward making sure we have a great teachers in front of every classroom regardless of the classroom size."
That's gimmickry baloney. In reality, his tenure bill, like his charter school initiative and the Legislature's new ban on teachers' bargaining rights and political action committees, are political ploys, not education improvements. As a practical matter, it will take much more to pull Tennessee's public education ranking out of the cellar.
The existing tenure provisions needed only firm principals to make them work. Charter schools won't improve public schools, but they will rob them of per-student funding and their most motivated students. Destroying teachers' unions was simply political vengeance against teachers for supporting more Democrats than Republicans.
This will soon become apparent as schools continue to suffer from funding shortages, too few teachers and poor morale, making it all the harder to find more "quality" teachers who are willing to put up with state and local neglect of our communities' greatest need.