Teacher quality trumps class size

Would you prefer your child to be in small class taught by a mediocre teacher or a slightly larger class taught by an excellent teacher? Small class size is overrated, writes Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, in City Journal.

. . . since the mid-1950s, the U.S. student population has increased by 60 percent, while the number of public education workers, including teachers, administrators, and other non-certificated staff, has exploded by 300 percent.

. . . What’s more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one.

Tennessee’s STAR experiment found lasting benefits, especially for black students, for classes of 14 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade. Most of the gains appear to have occurred in kindergarten and first grade. 

Other studies have found no achievement gains in smaller classes, Sand writes.

In 1998, economist Eric Hanushek analyzed 277 class-size studies: 15 percent found achievement improved, 72 percent found no effect and 13 percent found reducing class size reduced achievement.

When California paid schools to cut K-3 classes to 20 students, suburban districts were able to hire good teachers to teach the additional classes. Inner-city schools made do with anyone they could find.  As a result, a RAND analysis found class-size reduction had no benefit for urban students.

If districts fired the lowest-performing 5 percent of teachers without hiring replacements, class sizes would rise only slightly, Sand writes. The savings could be used for “increased salaries, books, computers, or whatever the individual school district chooses.”

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