And we've been on a crusade to achieve that goal for six decades. As Larry Sand notes at City Journal, the number of public education employees has increased more than 300% since the mid-1950s, while the student population has grown by only 60%.
True, not all of the additional staffers work in the classroom. Much of the growth in our public schools has been at the administrator level, with increases in other areas as well. But even when you factor in all those additional bureaucrats, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries and security personnel, the number of teachers has also increased dramatically, producing a corresponding decrease in the average class size:
"..according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one. In California, going back to 1999, the student-teacher ratio across all elementary and secondary schools was 20.9 pupils. Today, it’s 21.3—a paltry 1.9 percent increase."
But does a smaller class mean greater student achievement? According to Mr. Sand, a retired California teacher, the most famous study that advanced the "smaller-is-better" argument was conducted in Tennessee more than 20 years ago, and its methodology has been question. More recent research openly challenges that assertion:
In a 1998 study, for example, Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found that “reductions in class size from a base of 15 to 30 students have no effect on student achievement.” In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”
Mr. Sand believes the real solution may lie with slightly larger classes, taught by better teachers:
If we accept Hanushek’s numbers and dismiss the lowest-performing 5 percent of teachers without hiring replacements, a class of 20 would then increase by just one student. Ask any parent if he’d rather have his child in a class of 21 kids with a high-performing educator or in a class of 20 with a mediocre one. With only a finite amount of money available for education, fewer working teachers would free up funds for increased salaries, books, computers, or whatever the individual school district chooses. And, as a bonus, retaining fewer teachers would also mean fewer central-office bureaucrats and a smaller pension-fund burden on cash-strapped states.
Unfortunately, no politician is going to take up the rallying cry of "bigger classes for our schools." Already locked in a death battle with public employee unions, governors are afraid of handing their adversaries a weapon that might impede (or even reverse) current reform efforts. Indeed, most governors believe the problem will somehow take care of itself; with districts forced to lay off teachers because of funding problems, class size will almost certainly increase.
But not without a fight. As teacher layoffs begin to take effect, expect even more stories about harried teachers trying to manage unwieldy classes, and ensure that all students are actually learning. It's a sure bet that coverage won't talk about how much class rolls have shrunk over the last 30 years, and expected increases are modest, at best. Instead, reporters will go for the heart-strings, claiming that indifferent politicians (read: Republicans) are sacrificing our schools to help their wealthy friends.
It's a baseless charge; without reform of public education and employee pension plans, many school districts are facing bankruptcy in the coming years. What's more heartless: teaching kids in slightly larger classes, or shuttering the entire district?
Still, the argument advanced by the teacher's union and their Democratic allies does have some traction. At a Navy event, I recently met a Petty Officer Second Class, stationed in New Jersey. She has four school-age children; a civilian husband who's looking for work, and an unsold home at their last duty station. In her current financial situation, the Petty Officer qualified for food stamps. While acknowledging that Governor Chris Christie's reforms are needed, she worried about the loss of art and music programs at her children's schools. I'm sure she would be sympathetic to New Jersey teachers and their arguments about increased class size.
Research affirms that our schools can survive with slightly larger classes. Fact is, we have no other choice.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of getting rid of teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom. In today's edition of the New York Post, there's the story of Yvonne Chalom, a teacher in the city school system who was recently dismissed for leaving threatening messages on the voicemail of three administrators at Murry Bergtraum High School where she taught Spanish. Getting rid of Ms. Chalom, 49, took eight years and more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars.