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Idiocy in paradise: Hawaii handles school budget cuts badly

Hawaii is so far away we mainland reporters rarely mention it. I was the Post's western states correspondent in the 1980s, with Hawaii part of my beat, but I never asked to go there for fear of being labeled a pleasure-seeking layabout. That was a mistake. It is a fascinating state, the birthplace of our president, and its education policymakers have just taken a step that is a good example for the rest of the states of what NOT to do when you get into budget trouble---cut back the time kids are in school.

State education officials decided the best way to save money was to force teachers to take 17 days off without pay, the kind of furlough system that many states have used to cut government expenses. But doing this with teachers is a very bad idea. Every study we have indicates that instructional time is key in raising student achievement. Cutting back the available time by nearly 10 percent is a huge blow to learning in Hawaii, but the officials who have endorsed this option don't seem to understand that.

The second furlough day is Friday, meaning no school for 170,000 students to save $5 million for that day.

According to honoluluadvertiser.com, Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said if courts overturn the furloughs, the board of education would have to lay off probationary teachers, administrators and others, and force an increase in class sizes. "Layoffs mean we're going to have to increase the size of the classroom," she said. According to the advertiser, she said the amount of time spent in the classroom is less important than "the quality of education I'm giving that child."

Wrong. If doing layoffs removed quality teachers from the schools, then she would be right, but she already said that tenured and special education teachers would not be dismissed. So what she is saying is that having more students in the class is worse for them than having less time in class. The most detailed studies of class size, such as the Tennessee STAR research, show that it has little effect on learning unless you get class sizes below 17 students per class, far below what Hawaiian class sizes are now.

In the Washington area, where education officials appear better acquainted with the research, class sizes have gone up a bit to address budget cuts. That is the way to go. Lots of Hawaiians are saying that. I hope they are listened to.


By Jay Mathews  | October 29, 2009; 12:04 PM ET
 
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Comments

In Washington, we don't need 17 days of furloughs because you know we'll have 17 snow days, anyway. Despite the fact that it only snows like 3 days a year here.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | October 29, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
I believe you misrepresented the results of the Tennessee Star Research to make an unrelated point. Here is the over view statement of the results from the website you reference:
"The analysis of academic achievement consistently and significantly (p<.01) demonstrated the advantage of small classes over regular size classes and regular sized classes with a teaching assistant. As Jeremy Finn and C.M. Achilles stated in the American Educational Research Journal (Fall 1990), "This research leaves no doubt that small classes have an advantage over larger classes in reading and math in early primary grades."

Clearly class size does matter according to this report. The research does not compare class size changes with school hours changes. The research does not compare class size changes such as from 31 to 32 in middle school or high school.

You may be correct that more class time is more important than small changes in class size over all grades for a whole state, but this study does not support you and I think you should refrain from making such an illogical leap from a very good study of a separate idea.

Posted by: mhallet1 | October 29, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Simply put, for schools there are no good choices for dealing with Hawaii's financial problems. In fairness, you should also point out that education is not bearing the brunt of the impact of Hawaii's economic crisis. No aspect of life in the 50th state is not being hurt by the reductions in funds required by the current budget. The economic situation is bleak, and almost everyone is suffering the consequences. We can only hope that the recent glimmer of hope in the economy nationwide is the beginning of a trend that will continue to expand, and that the positive signs of economic turnaround will reach Hawaii sooner rather than later. Otherwise, even more drastic fund-cutting measures will be required to keep Hawaii afloat

Posted by: rcdwriting | October 30, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

for mhallet1--please read the STAR study further. It shows no significant improvement in achievement for classes with more than 17 students. That is critical since few schools, including those in Hawaii, have the resources to get class sizes that low.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 30, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

More lies, damn lies and statistics from Jay Matthews. I don't care what any study says, as a teacher, I can say from my ten years of classroom experience (which I know in Mr. Matthew's view counts for very little) reducing class size is the most valuable thing an administrator can do to improve the quality of time I have with my students. Most teachers I know, all of whom are considered good, would agree with me. Too bad nobody seems to give a damn about what experienced teachers think about improving education.

Posted by: sfteacher | October 30, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

More lies, damn lies and statistics from Jay Matthews. I don't care what any study says, as a teacher, I can say from my ten years of classroom experience (which I know in Mr. Matthew's view counts for very little) reducing class size is the most valuable thing an administrator can do to improve the quality of time I have with my students. Most teachers I know, all of whom are considered good, would agree with me. Too bad nobody seems to give a damn about what experienced teachers think about improving education.

Posted by: sfteacher | October 30, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay,
I did read it again as you suggested.
The study only compares interventions in three kinds of K-3 classes (1) small class (13 to 17 students per teacher), (2) regular class (22 to 25 students per teacher), and (3) regular-with-aide class (22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher's aide). The results of the study demonstrated using resources to reduce class size was more effective than adding a full time aide.
The study did not look at class size reduction of any other kind. For you to generalize that it says only reduction under 17 is helpful is simply not true because they did not study any other class sizes.
My point is not that reduction in class size is good or bad, my point is that this study does not support your inference that only reductions below 17 are helpful.
You were supporting your position by pointing to a study that answered a limited question about K-3 classes, not reductions at any other grade level or any other class size.
Jay, you are right a lot, but you on some occasions misstate the results of research. I think it weakens your overall credibility (which we all need from you).

Posted by: mhallet1 | November 2, 2009 1:02 AM | Report abuse

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