Is TSL the answer?

While warning readers to “beware of the easy school fix,” Washington Post writer Jay Mathews describes management professor Bill Ouchi’s research on the power of reducing Total Student Loads per teacher. When middle and high school teachers are responsible for fewer students, test scores go up, writes Ouchi, author of Making Schools Work, which called for giving more power to principals.

He says when middle or high school principals are given control of their schools’ budgets — a rare occurrence in big districts — they tend to make changes in staffing, curriculum and scheduling that sharply reduce TSL, the number of students each of their teachers is responsible for. Some urban districts have TSLs approaching 200 kids per teacher. But after principals get budgeting power, the load drops sharply, sometimes to as low as 80 kids per instructor. When that happens, the portion of students scoring “proficient” on state tests climbs.

A 1997 study found only 43 percent of school district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching, Ouchi writes in his new book, which will be out next year. (Mathews has an advance chapter.)

“When a district has too few classroom teachers,” Ouchi writes in his chapter, “student loads per teacher rise to the point where teachers can no longer know their students well enough to establish a bond of trust with them. Without this trust, a teacher can neither establish an orderly classroom nor push a student to do his or her best, and the teacher’s job often becomes frustrating and constantly stressful.”

After analyzing the effect of class size, teacher experience, teacher credentials, professional development, time devoted to math and reading instruction and other factors, Ouchi’s research team concluded that only TSL had a significant effect on student performance in all the districts studied.

Some middle schools and a few high schools combine English and history into “humanities,” so teachers have twice as much time with half as many students. It’s less common to combine math and science, though that’s sometimes done. It’s also possible to have teachers teach fewer classes and spend the extra time as counselors or administrators. Cutting class size is the simplest way to reduce teaching loads, but the most expensive.

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  1. Charles R. Williams says:

    How does block scheduling factor into this? It would seem to be a quick and easy way to reduce TSL.

  2. My current class schedule looks like this:
    1st period: History (22 students – strategic learners, i.e., those in the middle);
    2nd period: Language Arts (33 students – GATE identified students);
    3rd period: History (10 students – intensive students, i.e, those at the bottom and the lowest number of students I have ever had!)
    4th period: History (33 students – same GATE students from 2nd period);
    5th period: Language Arts (32 students – Benchmark, i.e., those testing proficient on standardized testing).

    After Christmas break, we start our second semester. My first period and third period classes will switch to the science curriculum. In the middle schools in my district, 6th grade is unique as these students are taught by teachers holding Multiple Subject credentials. We are the only teachers who may be required to teach four different subjects to different groups of students. While my students contact is at 76 students (if I did my math right!), I have to prep for four different level of students and three different curriculums.

    This year I am feeling somewhat schizophrenic!

  3. My administration has worked to create smaller classes, which has the effect of reducing TSL. I’m a much different teacher with the 90 or so kids I’ve had for the last couple of years than I was when I had about 140 (realizing that even 140 sounds dreamy to teachers in some districts). It is getting to know the kids to a large extent. Nobody gets “lost” in my classes now, and with fewer papers to grade per assignment, I can spend more time customizing assignments to the kids and can assign a couple more essays per semester without losing my mind. I’m a true believer in getting the kids to write as often as possible with targeted feedback and revision (and my test scores in writing are outstanding, so it does work), but there are real quality of life issues wrapped up in how many papers one assigns when one’s TSL is through the roof.

  4. At my middle school, the 6th grade students (with a few exceptions)have the same teacher for english/history and math/science. That is basically the same way for 6th graders in my entire district of LAUSD.

    I currently teach 8th grade US History with 2 avid honors classes and 3 regular classes. In my 2 honors classes, there are 33 and 35 kids each. In my regular classes, there are 18, 31 and 27 students. In my class of 31, I have an aide because there are so many special ed kids in there. In my class of 18, 1/3 of them are getting As and no one is getting a Fail. In the other 2 regular classes, about 1/4-1/3 are failing with only a couple As in each. In the larger 2 regular classes, I have to deal with more classroom discipline problems.

    Last year when I taught 7th grade world history, I had 2 regular classes with 35 and 25 students in each. There were more fails and much fewer As in the smaller class than in the larger class.

  5. One other thing I have always said is that I can much more easily teach 40 students who are behaved in the classroom than 10 students who are jumping off the walls and don’t do the work.

  6. California has created a statewide grant program called the Quality Education Investment Act. 488 low performing elementary, junior, and high schools were selected to receiving funding geared at increasing student achievement through a number of means, but primarily lowering class sizes. The approximately $3 billion dollars is supposed to increase student achievement by lowering class sizes in all grades and in the key subject areas.

    Will it work? We will see, but the key will be if the lower class size allows for better teaching in the classroom. The teaching quality in the classroom is the true key. Lower class sizes allow for better interaction with students, ease in small grouping, etc, but if the teaching is the same before the smaller class size, it would be difficult to predict increased student achievement.

  7. God forbid that the martinet currently serving as our principal gets control over the school budget.

  8. Maybe if your martinet were on the hook to produce measurable academic results the pleasures of misusing authority would be forced to take a back seat or the martinet would be gone.

    Right now all your martinet has to do is *not* become an annoyance to higher administration and there’s no fault. But if academic results become the criteria for determining job performance then the its the subordinates who determine how the principal measures up.

  9. A period with 10 “intensive students” and one with 32 “GATE” students. Yeah, let’s spend three times as much on losers as we do on the bright kids who will actually lead society. Do we do this to make t4reating each kid the same look good?

  10. I suspect that the people who would seek a job as principal in a world where they have budget authority and results accountability are pretty much a different group from those who seek the job in an environment of minimal authority and accountability. Maybe there are a few frustrated souls who are rarin’ to go if they could only get the reins in their hands, but in general, the typical administrative pattern probably weeds out the enthusiasts and retains the time-servers.

  11. I have fewer students in several of my classes this year ( Grade 7 World History in California). Why? Because a certain percentage of our students are not enrolled in History classes. Why not? Because they are sent to junior high with 2-3rd grade reading levels, and “Far Below Average” test scores in Math. So our JHS offers them two periods of math, two periods of LA, PE and Science. Why science ? Because for JHS’s, apparently science Grade 8 test scores are more important than Grade 8 History/Social Studies test scores.

    In the past, I have had “low performing/academic skills” students in my classes who did well. In part, it is up to the student and what attitude they bring to the classroom. Our school royally screws our GATE students by putting them in “clusters”. My “GATE cluster” class includes about 12 GATE students, about 12 ELL students, three students labeled “Highly At Risk,” and a handful of “regular” students.

    Some of lowering class sizes can be negotiated. Our local high schools have, by their contract, a limit of 24 students in science classes. Our district, meanwhile, allows, by contract, up to 45 students in a PE class.

    Schools who are allowed to use money to lower class sizes are, IMO, lucky. But, is it done equally across the board, or has it been done to provide yet another service to the lowest level students ?

  12. I don’t believe that you can label low-performing students as “losers”. It may seem like a poor choice to put the “intensive” students in small classes, but the alternative may be to place them in larger classes than they have the ability to handle. When they feel overwhelmed with work that is too hard, and feeling less able, they will maintain their esteem the only way they can – by becoming a disruptive PITA (no, not the bread, the Pain in The —).

  13. I don’t think Mrs. Davis was labeling all low-performing students as “losers,” but I could be wrong. I think she was talking about losers, i.e., the narcissistic pathologues that come to school with no intention of doing anything other than taking up space and disrupting class. And of course the powers-that-be contort themselves out of shape in order to save them from themselves. Unfortunately, they were lost before they ever entered your classroom, but the liberal egalitarian mind cannot accept that there exists such a thing as losers. And because of that worldview, teachers are tasked with trying any number of educational strategies and fads in order to reach them, and if teachers fail at it, it’s the teachers’ fault. Bright kids are often neglected because they just don’t ignite the flames of altruism that the losers do. Besides, you don’t get a hero’s medal or a film made about you for spending time on bright kids.

  14. Polski3,

    How does your school “royally screws our GATE students by putting them in “clusters”? How does putting them together hurt them?

    I thought putting GATE kids together was a best practice for GATE kids.

    My school royally screws its GATE kids by separating and isolating them.

  15. I’m still a bit iffy on the difference between reducing class size and reducing total student load. Can anyone explain this to a lowly high school math teacher? I’m not certified to teach anything but math, so given that, how would my TSL be reduced except by block scheduling (which I don’t support) or by reducing class size?