Smaller Classes or Better Teachers? Part 1

If Kansas school districts consolidate, that might in some instances mean more larger classes. After all the division of Legislative Post Audit said that one way that consolidation could save money is through “fewer schools, administrative staff, and teachers” (emphasis added). Are larger classes bad?

Common sense suggests that smaller classes make for better teachers, but here’s a related question that lawmakers must consider: When it comes to teachers, do you go for quantity or quality?

I’ll illustrate this by drawing on this simple mathematical fact:

5 * 100,000 = 500,000

and

100,000 * 5 = 500,000

Say you’ve got 500,000 students in the state. You can have five classes with 100,000 students each. That’s only five teachers for the whole state–great for budgeting, but terrible for education.

Or you could have 100,000 classes of five students each. That’s great for students, but employing 100,000 teachers is going to be very expensive for taxpayers.

There’s also a problem of “scaling up” to that many teachers. We might be able to add another 10,000 people to the teaching corps–people who would make good teachers. But as we expand the recruiting net, we will be drawing on people who are progressively less qualified to teach.

Given a fixed amount of money to pay teachers–and fact it, Kansas is not going to find a pot of money anytime soon that will allow for a massive hiring of new teachers–we face this question: Is it better to have fewer but better teachers, or have more teachers and run the risk of diluting the quality of the pool?

Jay Matthews, a columnist on education for the Washington Post, says that Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be Goal. Matthews tells a story of Rafe Esquith, a teacher in Los Angeles who not only has a large number of students (31) in his fifth-grade class, but double the usual number on the day Matthews visits. Even more challenging, Esquith’s students  come from homes where the mother tongue is not English. Yet his students score high on standardized tests. Say what you will about standardized tests, Esquith’s class demonstrates that large enrollments and academic excellence can be compatible.

Esquith told Matthews, “A great teacher can teach 60. A poor teacher will struggle with five.” Drawing on his own observations of classrooms in a variety of settings, Matthews agrees. He draws on a Harvard professor who, studying high-performing charter schools in urban districts, says that what makes the difference is more instructional time, and high-quality teachers.

Matthews adds that small class sizes are nearly sacred. Of course, union officials think that’s great. Regardless of their studied conclusions on the matter, their economic self interest (especially when they’re full-time employees of the union) nudges them toward supporting small classes:

Small classes = more teachers = more union members = more dues = more power and pay.

Again, this isn’t to say that union officials are insincere in their advocacy, but it is something to keep in mind.

When considering class size, it’s important to remember that the needs of students typically change as they age, so the value of smaller classes varies as well:

But when the Center for Public Education examined 19 studies of class-size effects that met its research standards, it reached two interesting conclusions. First, most of the studies focused on kindergarten through third grade, and most of the beneficial effects of smaller classes seem to occur in those years, when students are learning to read. Spending money on class-size reduction for those kids makes sense, as several local school systems have shown.

Second, the studies showed little effect from class-size reduction unless the number of students was 20 or fewer, and little effect in middle or high schools.

Getting to 20 or fewer students in a classroom takes serious buckets of cash, and I think the number is probably smaller than that. Saying that small classes matter, in other words, is like saying that there’s a large difference between a day in which the high temperature is 10 below zero and one in which it is 9 below zero. Yes, the second day is “warmer,” but by how much?

Matthews concludes,

Smaller classes or better teachers? We want both, of course, but the best educators have convinced me we ought to vote for getting more people like them.

And how can we get more people like them? Then we get into a whole series of issues that go beyond budgets, including classroom disciplinary policies, and how we recruit new teachers, reward existing teachers, and force out ineffective ones. The Widget Effect, a fairly recent report, offers some provocative and important ideas on those topics.

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