Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be Goal
Here and in the rest of the country, school superintendents who have been forced to raise class size hope they can reduce the number of students per class when budget troubles ease. Having seen many successful large classes and many abysmal small ones, I wonder whether that would be the best use of our tax dollars.
Let's pretend Fairfax County schools get a surprise $44 million from the federal stimulus package this summer. With that money, the school system could make each class, on average, two students smaller, or it could do what some high-achieving schools do: Keep class sizes large and focus instead on more energetic recruiting and training of teachers. Research indicates that a two-student reduction would make little difference. Why not see what better instruction could do?
Or, try this thought experiment: The principal says your child can be transferred to the school's best teacher, an imaginative and energetic motivator, but that will push the class's size up to 30. Would you decline the offer? I wouldn't.
Maybe a visit to Room 56 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles will help. It has far more students than is considered wise -- 31 fifth-graders taught by Rafe Esquith. I stopped there one day last month because Esquith is amazing to watch. There were actually 60 students in the 29-by-27-foot room that afternoon because Esquith, who has no classroom aide, had invited volunteers to join Room 56's annual Shakespeare rehearsals. This year's play is "The Merchant of Venice," with musical interludes also performed by 10-year-olds. The students are mostly from low-income Hispanic and Korean American families, but their test scores are high and their English vocabularies exceptional.
Esquith, whose third book on teaching comes out in August, agrees with me that class size is a factor in learning. Smaller classes mean more attention for each child, but the impact is minimal compared with making the instructor more effective. "A great teacher can teach 60," Esquith told me. "A poor teacher will struggle with five."
That is not, in my experience, much of an exaggeration. I have seen some high school teachers keep as many as 50 students moving forward, with enthusiasm, in challenging classes. They do what Esquith does. Lessons are lively. Students are encouraged to adopt a team spirit to support each other as they learn. Some of the highest-achieving middle schools in some of our poorest neighborhoods average 28 to 30 students per class. On the other side of the bell curve, I have spent time in D.C. high school classes where no more than 15 students ever showed up, but worn-out teachers gave them little to do.
Katherine K. Merseth, director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Teacher Education Program, said her recent study of high-performing urban charter schools shows them focusing more on improving teaching than reducing class size. Increasing time for instruction also seems to have more impact. Esquith often spends 12 hours a day in Room 56, which he acknowledges is extreme. But Massachusetts has gotten significant results in 26 schools by adding just two hours to the school day and more money for teachers.
You don't hear much about this at school board meetings. The assumption that reducing class size is paramount has become rooted in our culture, and public officials risk censure if they say otherwise. Of course, I am sure Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale believes it when he says raising class size is "the last resort" in his budget cutting. The same goes for union leaders who have put class-size reduction at the top of their agenda. They think this will improve the working conditions of their members and help their students.
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.
For most schools, getting class-size averages to less than 20 students won't happen unless somebody strikes oil in the playground. Teaching 30 or more kids challenges even the best instructors, but people like Esquith and his disciples have made it work. They say they prefer a larger class to sending students off to the listless buck-passing that infects many urban classrooms. 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.
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