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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/10/2010

Why we can't afford small classes anymore: One view

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Justin Snider, who teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University and writes for The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Justin Snider
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 is welcoming for the first time 4,200 public-school students this month.

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 multibillion-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.

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Elementary School, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  class sizes, florida and class size, florida and class size and referendum, research on class size, small classes, teacher quality  
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Comments

Well Justin, I notice you are teaching at the college level; how long has it been since you were in the K-12 classroom or was it never?

You are teaching students who are choosing to be in your class and paying for the pleasure.

If you have discipline issues, and college classrooms are generally devoid of that issue, well, the students are removed.

All you have to do if you have a few more students is grade a few more papers.

By college age, most students do not have their parents running interference for them, taking up a lot teacher time on the phone.

By contrast, in the public classroom, inclusion and differentiated teaching is all the rage, so every student added to the mix means not just extra papers, but a whole other layer of extra tasks and accommodations, not to mention extra time with parents.

While some of your arguments may be sound, (and I don't want to waste space going over them),the last one is not. To begin with, It's a rare public school classroom that has actually achieved 'first class' status, and now we are threatening to go to not just coach, but sub-coach status to follow your analogy. To wit: the worst coach seats are closer together, little leg-room, and you pay for every single thing that used to be included: baggage fees, and pay for meals, plus getting the worse flight times so that one's inner clock system is out of whack. It's one thing for an adult to put up with, it's quite another for young children and their parents. (Oh right, and children can no longer fly for reduced fares.)

Yes, in dire economic times, you 'make do' in as many areas as you can, but you try to protect the core - the critical organs of the body, if you will. It's critical that children have the needed attention; it's critical that they be taught necessary skills, and it's also critical that they get some emotional nurturing and expressive outlets.

What would I cut?

- Before I'd cut class size, I'd stop ordering brand new text books every year - most core subjects like English and math change little in two to three years.

- The fancy electronic white boards and extra computer programs? It won't hurt teachers and students to rely on their own wits for a year or two or three.

- Superintendent salaries in some areas are pretty outrageous; they could at least be frozen or reduced.

- Administrators could start teaching a class or two to take on the extra students and to get in touch with the realities of today's classrooms - that could keep class size down.

- Maybe some college professors could do a little volunteering in the local schools to offer their guidance as well as doing some of the gruntwork of grading papers.

In closing, yes, it would be wonderful to immediately draft all 'great' teachers, but like your earlier story of suddenly having to hire many unprepared teachers to meet the reduced class size, the sheer numbers of well-prepared, great teachers, just aren't there.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 10, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

While as a policy research wonk I rarely deal in anecdote, I worry whether Justin actually teaches much writing at Columbia given his perspective on class size. The consequences of states 'picking around the edges,' as noted, make little difference (at least in test scores) - and may do harm (e.g., California's inability to find sufficient numbers of qualified teachers). Certainly for the lesser teachers who simply stand in front of a class and talk for 50 minutes and give nothing but bubble tests, it matters not whether there are 5 or 5,000 kids in a class. HOWEVER - the high school English gifted and AP teachers I know - at 20-22 kids per class (*5 classes = 100-110 total) easily spend 70-75 hours a week what with (endless) grading papers, (lots of) parent calls, after and before school meetings, etc. etc. etc. etc. If you're going to get kids into their upper echelon schools, that's the price. This year with budget cuts, they have about an extra 30 kids total. Either they work 90 hours or more a week, or they compromise what they give the kids. Few tests measure skills at this level of student expertise, but I'd argue that just as it's inaccurate to generalize from the inadequate research that ANY class size reduction will be GOOD, it's also improper to conclude that change in class size will never make ANY difference.

Posted by: jerryeads | September 10, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Read the class size amendment from Florida a little more closely and you will find that it also says that the legislature is required (by the constitution mind you) to provide the funding for a quality education for all the states children. So getting rid of the amendment voted in by the citizens of Florida, has always been about funding from the legislature. Mind you this is a state that pays more for prisons than for education and thinks it is important to give tax breaks to yacht buyers at the same time it is trying to halve public employee pensions. So don't talk to me about spending priorities in the public schools. I can already see what they are! Try teaching 150 to 200 children and giving them a quality education. No matter what your teacher qualifications may be there are not enough hours in the day. Try running safe lab activities with classes of over 25 in Middle school. The charters have already cut out bands and most music education. New Orleans no longer has a single High school band program because they don't want to spend their funds on anything except real estate scams. So we know their priorities as well. Educating children and giving them opportunities like science lab and music takes time and money. We are still one of richest nations on earth and where we spend our money shows what our real priorities are.

Posted by: kmlisle | September 10, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Read the class size amendment from Florida a little more closely and you will find that it also says that the legislature is required (by the constitution mind you) to provide the funding for a quality education for all the states children. So getting rid of the amendment voted in by the citizens of Florida, has always been about funding from the legislature. Mind you this is a state that pays more for prisons than for education and thinks it is important to give tax breaks to yacht buyers at the same time it is trying to halve public employee pensions. So don't talk to me about spending priorities in the public schools. I can already see what they are! Try teaching 150 to 200 children and giving them a quality education. No matter what your teacher qualifications may be there are not enough hours in the day. Try running safe lab activities with classes of over 25 in Middle school. The charters have already cut out bands and most music education. They advocate "direct instruction" for a reason. New Orleans no longer has a single High school band program because the charters there don't want to spend their funds on anything except real estate scams. So we know their priorities as well. Educating children and giving them opportunities like science lab and music takes time and money. We are still one of richest nations on earth and where we spend our money shows what our real priorities are.

Posted by: kmlisle | September 10, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps we should have smaller classes for the younger children. And smaller classes for children who are behind in certain subjects.

And then let the other classes be bigger.

Maybe that would work out better.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 10, 2010 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Increasing class sizes could work if we also were willing to group students by ability. Large class sizes don't work as well when a teacher has to deal effectively both with students who are struggling with basic skills and students who are above grade level. If there are a lot of students, the teacher won't have time to give each type of students the attention they need, so something has to give. Usually, it is the students who are above grade level who get ignored, because the teachers know it won't affect the test scores. My guess is that those studies, which also use test scores as their basis, also don't pick up that effect.

Posted by: bkmny | September 11, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I am 30. I grew up in Taiwan attending classes that had around "50" students. As a very small country that has only 22 million people without natural resources, Taiwan is able to provide many high-tech products to the world with its own brands such as Acer and HTC. Why? Because we have had good education that produces high quality work force. Class size isn't the biggest problem. Commitment of parents and students is.

Posted by: salukiindc | September 11, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Before I have any sympathy with the budget woes of schools, I'd like to see them cut out some of the standardized tests. Montgomery, Howard, and Prince George's County have all created "benchmarks" or "quarterly assessments" for each student to take, to "prepare" them for the state tests.

In Howard County, this means that every 6, 7, and 8 grader must take a county test in math, science, English, and Social Studies each quarter, plus Health one quarter. Students in grades 3-5 have them in Math and Reading, I believe, and you'd better believe they have them for the core subjects in high school, too.

The county spends the money to write each of those tests every summer, then the extraordinary sum to have them printed for *every* child in the county (sure, they can reuse some of the test books, but that's still a LOT of printing!). This is before we've bought all the other tests that we use, and is contributing to a loss of many instructional hours.

To add insult to injury, many of the tests don't even test the course content; for example, each middle school science test also has questions that test reading comprehension (not science). When you've cut out the waste of excessive testing, then we can talk about what other cuts we need to make.

Posted by: LadybugLa | September 11, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

First off, class size reduction is not the reason for California's financial woes; Proposition 13, passed in 1978, is because among other things, it requires the legislature to pass budgets and raise taxes with a 2/3 majority vote in both houses. Also, communities can't levy taxes without a 2/3 majority vote. Consequently, with a no- taxes Republican minority in both our state Senate and Assembly, nothing can get done.

As an 8th grade teacher with 36 students in each of my English and history classes this year, I can tell you that my ability to individually hold writing conferences with each student on a regular basis is greatly compromised. For most of my 23 years of teaching, I averaged 30 students a class and it was difficult then to confer with students. Primary teachers who taught 20 kids for the last 15 years now have to teach 30 and they can't possibly provide the students with the kinds of differentiated instruction they did in the past. We are expected to teach more to our students with fewer resources and aides and we have more students. It's not an either/or situation. We need experienced teachers who deserve to get decent pay and we need resources in our classrooms as well as fewer students. I could offer my students a far higher quality education with lessons that emphasize critical thinking, deep discussions, project-based learning if I had fewer students. Having 30 students meant a tight fit. With 36, I had them remove the 6 computers I had in my classroom to make room for the additional desks. College professors have no idea what it is like to teach in a public school. Until you walk in my shoes, please don't assume you know what's best for public education.

Posted by: 8thgradeteacher | September 12, 2010 2:19 AM | Report abuse

A short follow-up: So, Mr. Justin Snider teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University, obviously, then, a graduate student who probably has very little, if any, 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 put a few things together -- all without talking to a single live, warm body human being elementary or high school teacher.
The GREEN ZONE is alive and well in New York as well as Washington.

Posted by: taninao | September 14, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

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