Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Size Myth

It's been a hallmark of education reform plans since the 1950s. Reduce class size in public schools, the argument goes, and student achievement will improve dramatically.

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.


John from Pennsylvania said...

Having served 24 years in the army I have found more challenges in the 12 years of teaching that I have done. As to class size, I teach science in a nice suburb school and my class load has ranged from 120 to 145 for 5 science classes which breaks down to an average of about 24 to 29 students per class. What has really changed is the drive by the powers that be to individualize teaching for every student. Teaching science class and having to make 4-5 different tests or quizzes for everyone because of learning differences is really time consuming. Plus certain students aren't graded the same because of individual learning plans that I have no control over. Some get extra time, only have to answer 1/2 of the questions that regular students have to answer or their multiple choice questions can only have 3 possible answers, not 4 or 5 and you can see how it can pile up. The problem is that I have to focus so much on the lower ability students because of legal issues (IEP's), and the high students that have parents that are closely watching everything they do, the middle 80% of the students get ignored because of time constraints. I know my district HS classes average about 14-16 students so that brings down the overall average class size for a district but check with other middle school students. Social students and science teachers have to teach everyone. English and math classes have classes for different ability levels so students with IEP's /learning difficulties are put in much smaller classes to address their learning issues. Also science and social studies are not measured for Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) under NCLB so the push is to reduce the size of the classes in those subjects that show up in the reports to the state and local newspapers. Trying to really teach science and engage the students in hands on activities when you have so many in the classroom can be done but you really have to be on top of your game and I would love for some people who talk about bad teachers come in my classroom for a marking period, not a day or a week and really see what it is like.

SwampWoman said...

What John From Pennsylvania said. Every child has to be taught on an individual basis, show learning gains and adequate yearly progress, and all children must pass the state standardized test (science is tested here) regardless of IQ or the teacher will be dismissed. 50 point IQ differentials within the same class are common. There will be several formerly special education children in class because of mainstreaming. There are going to be discipline problems in class. And the teacher's problem is that they and the administration are powerless do anything about children that are disruptive in class.

Alaska Paul said...

I wonder how much staff increases (other than teachers) has been due to the onerous reporting and other staffing requirements of receiving federal money to schools.