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class size and budgets

Economic downturns aren’t all bad news: one upshot is that they force people to reexamine their expenditures. When money’s tight, most of us start to scrutinize where every cent is going. We reprioritize. Spending $25 for a night out at the movies, when we stop to think about it, doesn’t really make much sense – especially when we could wait a few months and own the movie on DVD for half the price. Four-dollar lattes each morning suddenly seem absurd.

Recessions and depressions help us see, and correct, our wayward ways. We trim the fat, after having insisted for years there wasn’t any fat to trim.

But when the economy is flying high, nothing looks fatty – though that’s only because no one’s really looking. We invent and grow accustomed to new toys, and we wonder how we ever lived without them. We forget that there’s a world of difference between needing what we have and having what we need. “Want” and “need” become synonyms.

The field of education isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. In boom times, we expand curricular and extracurricular offerings, we upgrade facilities, we hire more staff and we reduce class sizes. We have no doubt that if we build it, they will come. That was the theory behind the construction of the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles, which will open to 4,200 public-school students in September. It sounded like a great idea back in 2006 when voters approved bond measures to the tune of $20 billion for such projects.

California has proven particularly adept at the game of conflating “want” and “need,” which helps explain its current fiscal woes. In 1996, when the Golden State was awash in cash, California decided to launch a state-wide class-size reduction program that would, over time, reward districts for capping classes in grades K-3 at 20 students. The effort is estimated to have cost the state at least $20 billion.

By many accounts, class-size reduction is a success story. Parents love it, as their children get more individualized attention. And teachers, of course, love it. Who wouldn’t want fewer students in each class? Costs were initially irrelevant because in the heady days of the late 1990s, California was routinely running multi-billion-dollar budget surpluses.

Now it’s 2010, and class-size reduction programs in California and elsewhere – especially Florida – look foolish. They were built on a shaky foundation, a single study out of Tennessee that was conducted in 1985. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared the academic achievement of low-income elementary students in small classes of 13-17 with that of similar students in larger classes of 22-25. In the much smaller classes, modest but enduring gains were observed among poor African-American kindergarteners and first-graders.

Thinking they’d found the holy grail to raising student performance and erasing the achievement gap between poor and affluent children, politicians and policymakers in some states sought to shrink class sizes.

The trouble is, they didn’t pay close enough attention to the study’s results, and they crafted programs that bore little resemblance to the conditions in the Tennessee study. California, for instance, went universal with its program – handing out money to any district in the state that capped classes at 20 in grades K-3. This had the unintended effect of creating a run on good teachers: the best teachers tended to flee to the suburbs, which were suddenly hiring and which offered better pay and working conditions. (Many also already had smaller classes, so they were given state money for doing nothing – simply a case of the rich getting richer.)

Harder-to-staff schools soon found themselves in desperate need of bodies at the front of their classrooms. Overnight, nearly 21,000 new teachers were needed state-wide. People were hired off the street and granted emergency credentials to teach. The percentage of uncertified teachers skyrocketed: in 1995, about 1 in 50 California teachers lacked full credentials, compared to 1 in 7 teachers four years later. Poor children were, predictably, much more likely than middle-class or affluent children to be taught by unqualified teachers.

It’s little wonder, then, that the successes of Project STAR were nowhere to be seen in California.

An even more disastrous scene has unfolded in Florida, where voters in 2002 approved an amendment to the state constitution that gradually reduced class sizes in all grades. At the high school level, classes in core disciplines cannot exceed a school-wide average of 25 students. Beginning with the 2010-11 school year, the amendment’s requirement will have to be met at the individual classroom level. The state legislature, realizing the classroom-level requirement will cost taxpayers an extra $353 million this year alone, will ask Florida’s voters to loosen the regulations in November. The state has spent an estimated $16 billion on class-size reduction thus far.

Increasing class sizes makes no one happy. When Chicago school officials announced their intention to raise class sizes in June, the teachers’ union immediately filed suit to block the move. In New York City, some parents and teachers are outraged that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have allowed class sizes to creep up on their watch, despite campaign promises to the contrary.

The reality, though, is that of all the things we should worry about in providing a quality education to our children, class size isn’t high on the list. Teacher quality matters a lot more. Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder of The Equity Project Charter School in New York City, knows this. His teachers are the most highly compensated public-school educators in the country, earning minimum salaries of $125,000 per year. How does the school afford such salaries? Because Vanderhoek decided he’d much rather have the nation’s top educators teaching classes of 30 students rather than mediocre folks teaching classes of 20 students. And the research backs him up.

Champions of small classes, who invariably cite Project STAR, fail to grasp that the study’s findings have little bearing on current debates about class size in this country. The STAR study wasn’t about tinkering at the margins, reducing classes by one or two students, and it certainly wasn’t about the effects of small classes on student achievement at the middle- or high-school levels. The study has very little external validity, which is a polite way of saying its findings shouldn’t be generalized to other contexts.

The question isn’t whether class size matters. Of course it matters – at the extremes. Elementary students in classes of 50 would almost certainly learn a lot less than similar students in classes of 10 or 20. But what we’re talking about in the U.S. is marginal reductions to class size, going from 30 to 25 students per class, and the benefits versus the costs of such reductions.

The real question is whether across-the-board, marginal reductions to class size are a sounder investment than any number of other reforms we could try. That is, is reducing class size a move that yields a disproportionate bang for our buck? Decades of research suggest the answer, sadly, is no. Investments in teacher quality would do much more than smaller classes to raise student achievement in the U.S.

I’m a teacher myself. If given the option, I naturally prefer to teach fewer rather than more students. Because my time is finite, I fear each of my students will get less of my attention as my classes increase in size. But, all things considered, smaller classes aren’t the smartest investment we can make. They’re a bit like flying first class: lovely if you’re flush with cash, but by no means necessary to arrive at your desired destination. Yes, first class offers you extra leg room, better food and more attention from the flight attendant, but it also costs ten times the price of coach. In other words, it’s a luxury – like small classes – we can no longer afford.

This article also appeared online in The Providence Journal on September 5, 2010, The Huffington Post on September 9, 2010 and The Washington Post on September 10, 2010.

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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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    My wife has been a teacher for over 25 years and has taught children at the middle school and high school levels, and adults at the community college level at half a dozen school districts and institutions. She is currently teaching inner city high school students in a school district that ranks within the largest top three in the nation.
    Mr. Snider’s opinion that “class size simply does not matter”, but does matter “only at the extremes”, these are tough economic times so we have to cut the money used to decrease class size (“due to dimishining returns” supposedly) and instead invest in better “teacher quality”, is simply WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Nothing can be further from the truth.
    He purportedly writes about American education from elementary to K-12 sitting from his ivory tower teaching journalism to white upper class Columbia college students. Obviously, then, he is a graduate student who probably has very little, if any, significant prior actual classroom teaching experience. If his piece is what now passes for journalism, no wonder one hears it said that “. . . .journalism is dead in America.” All he probably did is went to his computer, pulled a few articles as his “sources”, and cut and paste a few things together — all without talking to a single live, warm body human being elementary or high school teacher. But then, true journalism means work, hard work, and checking sources. (The GREEN ZONE is alive and well in New York as well as Washington.)
    Has he even ever set foot in his life in a large inner city high school of 35 mostly minority students containing a half a dozen trouble makers? Does he seriously want to maintain that cutting this class down to a size of even 30 or even 25 students (or even getting rid of the troublemakers entirely), would be ineffective in aiding my spouse’ efforts to achieve the school’s educational goals?
    My spouse has taught adults and children, large groups and small, and strongly and vigorously disagrees with your opinion, regardless of whatever statistical research studies Mr. Snider wants to cite. In fact his editorial is, quite simply, laughable and absurd to anyone and everyone who has any experience at all in American public education, which Mr. Snider apparently does not.
    She is not writing this I am, because she is correcting papers and entering grades, and does not have the time to respond to his frivolity he is submitting for some type of graduate credit.
    His argument to “invest in teacher quality” is a not so veiled attempt to malign the hundreds and thousands of teachers in America who doggedly go to work every single day fighting against the intolerable working conditions of overcrowded classrooms.
    And Mr. Snider’s implied argument that the root cause of lack of class discipline is really the fault of the teacher, is also WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. What would he do, pray tell, with all those students in class who are just not interested in learning AT ALL, inattentive, lazy, refuse to do their work, disrespectful and defiant to authority? Put twenty young people like that into a room for fifty minutes and you have semi-controllable chaos, but make it thirty five students and what you have is anarchy.
    If Mr. Snider really did his “statistical homework”, he would discover that a large percentage of teachers in America last only three to five years. After that time period, they simply quit and do something else, for the simple reason that they just cannot STAND doing it anymore. And there are those in the know who would tell Mr. Snider that they would not return to a teaching job for even that $125,000 a year he appears to grandstand as his end all and cure all.
    The naivete of the young knows no bounds.

  2. I agree with the above comments and would add that these foolish ideas come from some one who has little if any understanding of classroom dynamics. I have had classes of 40+ middle school students. This is a dream for bean counters and those that see only $$$$. As for the students education….. They spent more time trying to find seats in a woe fully undersized class room and the distractions of 40+ 6th graders in one room borders on silly. I am a teacher with training in the best methods of teaching the human brain and use them as a core for teaching. I still stuggled with this mass of students on hot days in buildings from the 1930’s that had very little if any air flow and temperatures reaching over 100 degrees. The impact of such temperatures on student learning were devastating and with that many bodies pressed into that little space it just made the situation worse. Before any “college” professor should be allowed to write an article on teaching in the classroom of anything other than colleges they should be required to teach for 5 years in a middle school of impoverished kids with immigrant non english speaking parents who have a grade level learning of no higher than 2nd grade. That was my 40+ class. Then and only then do they possible have anything to say of any relevance to the reality of teaching.
    Better yet let me write articles on how to teach college and I will have my student aide teach the class while I write the article by looking up old studies.

  3. I agree with the above comments. What can a highly skilled teacher in a classroom of 30 8th graders! with misbehavior do? Nothing!! Not even Superman can achieve a 100% goal. I’m a teacher of 35 years of experience. I taught in another Country for 25 of those years. I taught in every single level of education from kindergarten to the university level. There is no tracking on one on one in those huge classrooms, not even in College. Lecture classrooms can only give good outcomes in a Master Level, where all students are there because their interest, other than that nothing works better than small size classrooms. The only way to succeed is to know your students individually. How can you know every learning intelligence in a group of 40 students per class. I’m good but not superwoman. We need a better salary, sure we do but not at this cost!

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