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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.


By Washington Post Editors  | March 2, 2009; 6:37 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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I'd also send my student to the better teacher. However, I have asked parents this same question (perhaps you've raised the issue before?). Some want their child to get the additional attention provided by smaller classes and care less about the academic achievement which a "better" teacher could spur. This may be especially true in later grades where parents may not care much about, for example, 6th grade science but do care that their student feels comfortable.

Also, parents whose children were in those smaller classes with that great teacher strongly felt that, having "won the lottery", they were unwilling to share that teacher with additional students -- especially if those new students were needy and would absorb more of the teacher's time.

Finally, while you and I and everyone who reads your column may know a great teacher when we see one, I am aware of no evidence that school officials have the ability to pick better teachers if given more resources and no evidence that any training program improves teacher performance. For example, the national certification has not been shown to be associated with better teaching.

Posted by: mct210 | March 2, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

I am inclined to agree with Mr. Matthews.

The school system I attended from grades 2 to 12 had class sizes in the low to mid 30s. For two years we not only had larger classes, but also split sessions with half the high school grades in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

In my opinion, we received an education far superior to what is typical in Prince George's County. We certainly had better teachers (poor teachers were not retained), and more stringent requirements than I saw when my child was in Prince George's County schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Truancy and dropouts were almost unknown. Over 80% of my graduating class went from high school to either college or a recognized trade school.

Far more important than class sizes are good teachers who care and are allowed to teach and challenge, not hog-tied by rules that prevent them from being most effective; discipline; and parents who care. No amount of money thrown at small classes will make up for poor teachers, poor curricula, lack of discipline; or parents who don't parent.

Posted by: dcrussell | March 2, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

I totally agree that it's more about the quality of the teacher than the class size. My question is how to you get rid of the ineffective teachers? My daughter is in first grade in Montgomery County. Because we are a "focus" school, our K-2 classes are smaller. My daughter has 15 children in her regular class, and approximately 12 in her math class (with a paraeducator too). She is reading and doing math above grade level and her grades are good, but neither of her teachers motivate her, nor do they want any type of interaction with parents. It is one worksheet after another -- especially in math. Unfortunately our principal is ineffective as well and does not have the respect of the parents or the teachers. I am just counting the days until this year is over -- my understanding is that the second grade teachers are much better.

Posted by: Ridges92 | March 2, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

My wife teaches. My parents were teachers. I work with kids on a volunteer basis. It's not class size. It's only partially the teachers. The biggest impact in every child's education are the parents. Look at military kids. They get herky-jerky curriculum as they jump from school to school. They come from all walks of life. But consistently, year after year, decade after decade, military kids as a group outperform every other demographic group. Why? Because the military places a HUGE emphasis on parenting and education. I spent summers reading books in the back of the car as we moved from post to post. My parents dragged me to every historical landmark within 100 miles of whatever post to which we were currently assigned. I had some huge classes and some horrible teachers. But my parents were always around to help and to hold me accountable.

Posted by: mwcob | March 2, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

It amuses me that Mr. Matthews ignores the central flaw in his premise; the effect on the teacher of having so many children in one room, all day long. Teacher retention is already a major issue--with 1/3 of new teachers quitting in the first 5 years--because the job is physically and emotionally draining. Filling the room with children will only add to that drain and keep away those quality teachers.

Posted by: marlow14 | March 2, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Of course teachers hold the responsibility for engaging and motivating students in the classroom. However, another key factor in the success of students in a school is the engagement of its administration. Many principals and assistant principals leave the classroom without looking back. Decisions are made that heavily impact students without the teachers being involved or consulted. Why are we not taking a closer look at a school's leadership structure and those it involves? In most cases this is never discussed; however, the teachers are the only participants being held accountable? This is why many teachers leave the profession within the first five years.

Posted by: dcmetroteach | March 2, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Well, gee. It's hard to go wrong with suggesting that "better teachers will lead to better education".

It's certainly a non-controversial statement, but I think it's about time that we place a burden on those suggesting it to also suggest a plan for implementation. It's not as though schools are going out and intentionally recruiting sub-excellent teachers.

I mean, really. How many Rafe Esquiths are there in the country? And how do we convince all of them to become schoolteachers? Surely someone who can motivate 50 kids could just as easily motivate 50 adults for 3x the pay and 1/3 the headaches as a corporate trainer.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | March 2, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

The debate about class size vs. quality teachers pits two separate and critically important factors against each other. Both class size and teaching quality matter. A great teacher will be better and more effective with fewer students. As a third grade teacher, I have 26 students in my class. I can only give each student so much attention. With so many students, I spend much of my time managing behavior, keeping the class organized and on track, and working with the lowest performing students who are unable to work independently. This is a reality of the classroom and something that is necessary when 26 children are placed in a room together. As much as I work to differentiate my instruction, I am one person with 26 children to teach. I am considered a quality teacher and I have nine years of experience. However, the fewer students that I have in my class, the more effective I will be. Have you ever tried to give one-on-one reading assessments to a class of 26 students? I have to do this four times a year. Each time it takes away at least a week of my attention from the other students. These assessments are necessary, but time consuming. If I had fewer students, it would make a difference to the education of the class.

Does it matter if teachers are effective? Obviously. The reason that bad teachers remain in schools is because administrators are complacent and are not willing to take the steps necessary to fire bad teachers. But for the quality teachers out there (and more of us exist than you make it sound like in your column Jay Mathews-and we don't all work at KIPP), class size matters!

Posted by: salevine485 | March 2, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Reducing the number of students in a class increases instruction time for each student, which can be particularly detrimental to English language learners and students with learning disabilities or Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

Smaller class size also reduces the number of interruptions from students who may be discipline problems (which are often due to learning needs that require more attention). Students in a class of 30 are getting very little one-on-one assistance. A reduction of just two students can radically change the amount of ground a teacher can regularly cover. I've seen it in my own classroom.

In the same way that not every actor is Charleton Heston, why must every teacher be Rafe Esquith? Why must we insist that the hallmark of a good teacher is to work 60-80 hours a week, for money that often times is less per hour than what you might pay a weekend babysitter?

Part of teaching is modeling: Modeling a BALANCED life for our students -- one that promotes a healthy approach to time with work and family, time for one's self, time to run and play, and develop interests and hobbies. How can a teacher promote a sense of wonder that she doesn't have time to develop herself?

Larger class sizes -- particularly for those classes with a high percentage of English Language Learners, which means the teacher has additional lessons to develop and grade -- chips away at these valuable lessons that benefit students.

Posted by: DaisyGrows | March 2, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Jay.. it sounds great, doesn't it? Large classes with great teachers making tremendous strides at a lower cost per student - a libertarian dreamscape of education! Simple problem - you fail to recognize that your version of reality completely ignores those libertarian economic fundamentals. Talent like your LA teacher is lured from the classroom by better numbers in the private sector - unless, of course, he/she gets a lucrative side job like Rafe's, publishing books that state the obvious. The College Board, the Department of Education, textbook publishers and non-profits (yes - they pay more than most school systems) headhunt these superior teachers and pick them off mid career. Districts wave six figure administrator contracts at them and their classrooms are vacated. Schools like KIPPs entice them with the ability to weed out the underperformers through attrition and solid admin support. The top 10%-20% take their opportunities and run, except for the idealists - and there simply aren't enough of them around.

Posted by: NBCT2001 | March 2, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

The fallacy of choice between competent teachers/large classes is that 1. it's easier to control class size than teacher competence 2. large classes discourage student discussion participation and decrease engagement in learning 3. unless they're disruptive, students who fail to thrive in large classes fade away and rarely become advocates for smaller class sizes!

Posted by: mason_fam | March 2, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

1) Please note, as Jay points out, that class size research shows no difference above 20 students in the class (because a larger group requires a completely different approach to teaching).
2) Smaller class size seems imperative with students who have not yet learned to read.
3) Good teachers can be effective with more students than poor teachers BUT the upper limit is not infinitely elastic. Give them too many without compensation and they will burn out and/or quit.
4) I presume Jay is making a case (though he doesn't say so) that we should find better teachers and that we can do that if we pay them more (per student over 25 perhaps?) I can imagine a system like that working. I'm good. I am assigned 25 students and am given a stipend for everyone over that I agree to take. We probably could find a break even point where it would be worth it to me to take more students (compensated for time spent grading, advising, coaching, and meeting with parents) and more economical than hiring a new not-so-good teacher who would have higher marginal cost (though I've never worked out the numbers). Good teachers probably would take more students rather than work at the liquor store or the postal service over the holidays to make more money.
5) But be wary of recommending one solution: Consider smaller class sizes for young children/non-readers. Include even more intensive attention -- e.g. Reading Recovery -- for 8 years olds still struggling with reading. Go for larger class sizes 35-45 in grades 4-12 if teachers agree and are compensated BUT find some way to insure that each younster has a close connection to at least one adult (through an advisory program, for instance).
6) C'mon people, we actually know quite a lot about how to do this. Kids need attention and relationships with adults, but over 16 in the class and that goes out the window pretty quickly. And yes, readers can learn lots of things in large groups and from each other. That's the fun of it for the teacher -- keeping all the rings of the circus active at once. But it doesn't provide attention so we have to find some other way to do that. And DO NOT mess with taking 5, 6, and 7 year olds and turning them into readers. If we do, everything works. If we don't, nothing will.

Posted by: barbbolinas | March 2, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I teach high school English to students from mostly low-income families. Why is it that the "Cinderella teaching magic" happens at the elementary level, and the rest of us "stepchildren" are taken to task for not offering 100% engaging instruction? As wonderful as Esquith sounds, has she ever dealt with raging hormones, gang members, RSP kids with multiple challenges, and 15 year-olds who will be engaged only if the work doesn't challenge their brains too much? Increasing the class sizes only abuses the talent and skills that teachers have, while the kids who need more attention still miss out on academic support.

Ultimately, the responsibility to learn in on the student, and no amount of dazzling theatrics can substitute for learning how to analyze, write effective essays, and increase a student's overall critical thinking skills. Just let the high school next to Esquith's elementary school show their academic records.

Posted by: jerrepie | March 2, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher, I could only hope that there was a solution to making classrooms more successful. Class size matters to some extent depending on the needs and ages of the students involved. Effective teaching and personal relationships with students is what counts the most. More money will not create that. Teaching is a gift and one must have the passion for it. Unfortunately, not every teacher has it. It's the ones that strive to be the best that impacts students the most. This can't be bought! It is the teachers like Rafe Esquith that inspire people like me. He's the model teacher for putting relationships first, teaching second. Yes, he's a tough act to follow. He is my conscious in the classroom. Thanks Rafe!
The main thing teachers need is support, even if they are not the best. It is just like students, if we put them down, they won't perform either.

Posted by: arussell75 | March 2, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher. I am a great teacher for many reasons, but the number one reason I am good at my job is because I have good classroom management techniques. With a bigger class, I would still be successful because of my behavior policies. I have very few behavior problems, so almost all of my time is spent on instruction not on correcting bad behaviors. However, with a larger class, my time would be split between that many more students. I would not have the time to do as much individualized and small group instruction. The small groups and one-on-one work that I do with my students is key in their growth and development and without that individual attention, my students will suffer. It is researched based that smaller class sizes lead to more growth in students. The answer is not in raising class sizes and getting rid of "ineffective" teachers. The answer is to provide more support and training for teachers to help them be more successful. Some teachers just need a little more help to be effective- we shouldn't just give up on them- we should extend a helping hand.

Posted by: NCTeacher | March 2, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Of course both teacher effectiveness and class size are important. However , I teach high school junior English, and while I love my job and my students, recent increases in class size mean I teach more than 175 students. I work 14 hour days and Sunday is a always work day because I am constantly grading. It's incredibly sad when I find myself having to ignore best practices when it comes to writing instruction because there isn't enough time in the day to read my students' writing. I can't speak for all subjects, but for teachers of writing the numbers really do make a difference--for both student learning and teacher quality of life.

Posted by: ostrichella | March 2, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

For some of us a class of 30 would not be considered a "large" class. Students deserve opportunities for personal attention from the teacher, feed back on how to improve their work and praise for doing well. It becomes increasingly more difficult to do this effectively the larger the class is.

A teacher with poor classroom management skills will struggle regardless of how small the class is. However, even with good classroom control, larger classes can be difficult during hands-on lab activities because adolescents make mistakes, can be inconsiderate or just plain awkward.

Struggling teachers should be given support and training. Good teachers should also be supported so that they do not become burnt out or overwhelmed. Just as teachers nuture their students school administration should nurture their teachers.

Posted by: NekoandUsagi | March 2, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Good teachers - yes!, but what about using the stimulus money to hire more paraeducators (aides) in the public schools so that our children performing below-grade level or those with special needs can be properly attended to while the teachers teach? Ratio is important while we keep an eye on the kids who need the additional supports or for those who don't get adequate supports at home.

Posted by: MCPSParent | March 3, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

There is one specific data point that noone has addressed here and it is THE critical factor in classroom size, student achievement, teacher effectiveness, teacher recruitment/retention.

Classroom disruption.

One of the primary problems in our schools today is that too much time is being spent on managing classroom discipline and behavior. Studies show that 20/30/40% or more of productive time is being lost because teachers have to spend so much time managing kids' behavior.

As a middle school teacher shared with me the other day, she's lucky if she gets 15 minutes of actual teaching/learning time out of an average 35 minute instructional period.

Smaller classrooms aren't the answer. A smaller classroom with even a few unruly students is still an unproductive classroom. And, "better" teachers don't always mean teachers who know how to manage their students -- all too often they don't learn that in school. And, many of them leave before they figure it out or are helped through mentoring.

You have to handle both sides of the equation -- teach teachers effective classroom management skills at the same time you teach KIDS those social skills and character lessons that help them function in the classroom environment. It can't be one or the other.

But, making this change and adopting this policy requires a mind-shift that so far, too few people are willing to accept.

It's "easier" to blame the economy and look for short-sighted bandaids like "increased pay" or "smaller classrooms" that not only don't really make a difference, but aren't sustainable anyway.

Posted by: CorinneGregory | March 3, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

While class size is definitely a factor in better education, the curriculum plays a major role.
Instead of spending hours upon hours drilling our children on knowledge that is almost entirely erased from their heads the moment they leave the classroom, schools should be explaining the nature of the world we are living in. From the earliest years, children should learn about the tight connections and interdependencies that exist between people today, and that the desire to benefit at the expense of others (egoism) is the main reason for our suffering. This will make youth see that the short-lived enjoyment they acquire at someone else’s expense is actually harmful to them, because the harm they cause someone else boomerangs right back at them. At the same time, we should show them how nature’s balanced relationships of mutual love and respect lead to harmony, enabling the existence of life.
All we need are a few specific changes in subjects that are already part of the curriculum.
For a full article please go to:

Posted by: O_Fire | March 3, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

To a large extent I concur with Mr. Mathews. My wife is a substitute teacher and I am a technician with a nation-wide telecommunications company. As my wife moves from classroom to classroom in 2 different districts she sees a large number of teachers and classroom protocols. We often discuss the challanges she faces. I was educated in inner-city schools, and never was in a class smaller than 36. We also faced the problem of a large Spanish speaking immigrant population. Good teachers got results, bad or lazy teachers didn't. Most of the fault was at home, the immigtant parents didn't value education and the citizen parents often were too busy trying to make a living to spare much time to help their children. I was a latch-key kid and a classic underachiever. With an IQ of over 130 I succeeded in the classes I cared about and slid by with a C in those I didn't. The skills and personalities of my teachers went a long way in determining my success. I think our current problems are related to 2 areas: 1. School systems are overburdened with administrative personnel, all of whom siphon money and facilities away from the classroom. 2. I think the educators as a class haven't accepted that technology is here to stay and demands a different approach to education. There is so much information available that no one can know it all and even attempt to stay current in their field, let alone with everything there is to know. We need to teach basic skills, reading, writing/typing, basic math but concentrate on teaching how to problem solve and locate data in a high tech society. Most of us outside the classroom rarely do math on a higher level than simple addition or subtraction, that is what calculaters are for, we don't remember how to spell complex words (we comepose on computers which have spell-check problems). Short of some kind of science fiction implanted education module- the only solution I see to information overload is to teach information management in schools as early as possible.

Posted by: smith0621 | March 4, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Much of 5th grade teacher Esquith’s success comes from the great 4th grade, 3rd grade, 2nd grade, 1st grade, and kindergarten teachers. Yes, generous with his students, but not so with fellow teachers. There's more to this story. Readers beware. Research on class size showed the same findings at least fifteen years ago. Esquith earns accolades when he replicates success at another school. He will never leave and we all know why.

Posted by: motherseton | March 4, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

smith0621 does not know what he is talking about. O_fire has never taught in a classroom. CorrineGregory does not have children in school. MCPSParent if you only knew what a Kroc. NekoandUsagi harmless. ostrichella is right on and she alludes to relatively new research showing reducing total numbers for middle/high school teachers raises scores. ostrichella is a rookie teacher and will be kicking self in the head. NCTeacher can't complain but you don't sound public school. arussell75 talk to Rafe's colleagues before praise. jerrepie speaks for the experienced thank you. barbbolinas yes and no - thank you for #3 b/c Mathews left out research does show upper limit - but not as barbbolinas claims. mason_fam isn't funny. NBCT2001 is sooooooooo Skinner - you insult. DaisyGrows is not a classroom teacher. Salevine485 ok but please go get your MEd. afsljafweljkjlfe scared and hiding. dcmetroteach brilliant - Mathews take note - but my dear after family and genetics is teacher - yes it is. marlow14's flaw - no that's not why they leave. mwcob I don't know where to begin. Ridges92 honest real - but she's reading on grade level - that's the measure don't forget it. dcrussell can’t disagree but can’t agree either. mct210 - it’s called longitudinal student achievement - more than one and close to two years is what you look for in teachers.

Posted by: motherseton | March 4, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

I am a parent. My son is in a split 4/5 class with an awesome teacher. We got an extra grant to reduce class size in the upper grades so my son's class only has 24 kids, rather than 30+. Do I favor smaller class size or better teachers? Hmm - how do I tell, as a parent, that I will get a "good teacher"? I don't have a choice in what class my child is assigned. As a parent, I appreciate KNOWING that my child will be in a smaller classroom because at least I know it's a more manageable sized class. I would never know if my child's teacher was "good" until he's in the class.

For those in favor of better teachers, how would you qualify that? How do you measure a "good" teacher? Test scores? That seems to change depending on demographics and other factors. Saying you want "good teachers" and being able to implement a measurement and process to evaluate and weed out "bad" teachers would be key. In the interim, class size reduction would seem to be a concrete way to give students a better chance at getting a decent education while we figure it out.

Until unions allow evaluations based on performance measures and hiring and firing based on merit and not seniority, we will continue to have the challenge of "bad" teachers in the classroom because there is no way to get rid of them - they just get moved to another school if too many parents at one school complain.

Posted by: suzanne17 | March 5, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

suzanne17 - longitudinal measures - close to 2 in 1 - they get around numbers and type - half brains can request and interpret - Hey Mathews focus the unfocused - Jay here's your new and improved system, and deal - looking for acknowledgment in the preface cuz Ive got no time - too bad.

Posted by: motherseton | March 5, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

I'm amazed that someone with little experience in teacher or working with young people would offer such a definitive opinion.

My experience has been that class size makes a huge difference in the ability to serve children.

Have you ever had a waiter or a waitress that was assigned too many tables, and the service suffered? It's a similiar concept... No matter how well trained or motivated that server, there is a point at which they cannot monitor the needs of the number of people assigned to them.

Posted by: teacher13 | March 6, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

BTW - the word "tinier" in your byline makes it sound as though classes are already tiny, and are going to get tinier. This word choice could only be made by someone who has never spent a day in the trenches of education.

Posted by: teacher13 | March 6, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

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