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.”

Benefits vs. jobs

Wisconsin’s controversial law limiting public employees’ bargaining power will enable a district to hire more teachers to cut class sizes, reports the Appleton Post Crescent.

As changes to collective bargaining powers for public workers take effect today, the Kaukauna Area School District is poised to swing from a projected $400,000 budget shortfall next year to a $1.5 million surplus due to health care and retirement savings.

The Kaukauna School Board approved changes Monday to its employee handbook that require staff to cover 12.6 percent of their health insurance and to contribute 5.8 percent of their wages to the state’s pension system, in accordance with the new collective bargaining law, commonly known as Act 10.

Increased staffing also will make it possible to “identify and support students needing individual assistance through individual and small group experiences,” said the school board president.

Teachers will have less take-home pay, but more teachers will have jobs.

Via Ann Althouse.

Milwaukee Public Schools is laying off 354 teachers. In all, 519 staffers will be laid off and 500 vacancies will not be filled. Class sizes will increase and old textbooks won’t be replaced. If the union agrees to contribute 5.8 percent of wages to retirement benefits, the district can save 198 teachers’ jobs.

California private schools regain students

As California public schools raise class sizes and shorten the school year, more middle-class parents are turning to private schools, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

The recession cut California’s private-school enrollment from 10 percent of school-age children to 8 percent in the last decade. Now several San Jose area private schools say inquiries and applications are up 25 percent to 40 percent. A Christian school that closed several years ago is reopening to meet the demand.

Breakfast with Arne

Education Secretary Arne Duncan breakfasted with ed bloggers the other day. Michele McNeil summarizes on Politics K-12.

RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation highlights Duncan’s thoughts on class size.

Class size has been a sacred cow. We have to [put it on the table]. I have two kids. Given the choice between giving them a great teacher working with 28 kids or a mediocre teacher with 23, I’ll take the 28. Why not give the great teacher with 28 kids, $20,000, $25,000 more and give the rest [of the savings] to the district? Parents haven’t been given the choice. We need to have that conversation. Why don’t we have that conversation?

Rick Hess takes credit for the idea that “selectively raising class size” is different from “simple-minded calls for bigger classes.” (Andrew Rotherham has jumped on the bandwagon.)

Duncan said, “I’m not for collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Collaboration around the status quo is a real problem. . . . This is not about kumbaya.”

Asked about the standoff in Wisconsin, Duncan said, “You had a union that had been historically more intransigent, but was moving. You don’t want to hit them with a hammer.”

Dana Goldstein has several posts on the meeting.

I was invited but couldn’t make it, so I’ve got a brief meeting scheduled with Duncan next Friday, when I’ll be in D.C.

Actually, we’re flying to Baltimore to visit my stepdaughter and her family, which now includes Lillian Nicole (“Lily”), born March 2. I mentioned a week ago that my stepdaughter had made it through surgery without giving birth at 30 weeks. She made it to 31 weeks. Lily was two pounds, five ounces at birth but otherwise healthy. By the standards of modern medicine — thank you, modern medicine — Lily is only “moderately premature” and expected to go home in a few months or less.

Duncan: Get productive, drop ‘factory model’

Education Secretary Arne Duncan “knocked it out of the park”  in a speech at “Bang for the Buck in Schooling,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, writes Rick Hess, who hosted the AEI panel.

The New Normal — doing more with less — is “an opportunity to make dramatic improvements,” Duncan said. ”It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.”

Duncan urged states and districts to consider raising some class sizes and consolidating schools, but not to try to balance budgets by “reducing the number of days in the school year, slashing instructional time spent on task, eliminating the arts and foreign languages, abandoning promising reforms, and laying off talented, young teachers.”

Duncan made clear the financial drag of the status quo, saying, “The factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers–and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.”

And his to-do list was spot on. He said, “Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education–almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.”

. . .  ”Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

Small classes improve student learning only in the early grades, Duncan said. Duncan “laudably argued against gutting arts, music, and sports in a mindless effort to protect small classes, and pointed out that schools in South Korea and Japan excel with class sizes much larger than ours,” Hess writes.

While Duncan said in the Q and A that unions need to reform, he added that many problems are the fault of  ”dysfunctional school boards”  that lack courage and superintendents who put “political longevity” over “doing the right thing.”  His own department ” in many cases has been a huge part of the problem,” Duncan said. “I promise you, we’re looking in the mirror every day to say how do we stop being this compliance-driven bureaucracy and how do we support innovation.” He also warned that no more federal bail-out money will be flowing to districts.

Duncan can “make it safer for superintendents and state chiefs to talk about productivity and efficiency alongside student learning, Hess writes.  The U.S. Department of Education can ”scour its regulations to make it easier for states and districts to spend dollars smart. It can reduce paperwork and compliance burdens. It can fund and disseminate research and tools that help state and local officials gauge cost-effective programs and services.”

Ed Week’s Teaching Now has more on Duncan and his co-panelist, Shawn McCollough, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona, who cut $7 million in the past two years without layoffs. McCollough redeployed central-office staff to positions working directly with students and families.

A bonus for ‘gold-star’ teachers

If the teacher is good, students learn even in a large class. If the teacher is so-so, a small class doesn’t help.  Rick Hess proposes gold-star teachers who’d earn more for teaching larger classes. Students would be placed in gold-star classes only by request.

Teachers whose students post larger-than-normal gains for at least two consecutive years would be eligible to opt into the program. . . . Participating teachers would teach up to 50% more students than normal–say, 36 students rather than 24–and would be rewarded for their increased workload. Continued participation would depend on a teacher’s students continuing to make larger-than-normal gains.

Increasing class size by one student saves about $3,000, using average teacher salaries and benefits, Hess writes. A gold-star teacher who taught 36 rather than 24 students would save $36,000.

Awarding the teacher half that amount yields an $18,000 productivity bonus (a 35% bump for the median teacher). The state and district would split the other $18,000. Even on a trial basis in grades four through eight, such a program could help states shave school spending by two or three percent–tallying hundreds of millions in some cases while rewarding excellent educators.

Could this work?

Learn Anytime online classes at Kentucky’s Jefferson Community and Technical College pay instructors $65 per student. One very hard-working adjunct instructor earned $120,000 last year.  See Community College Spotlight for more.

Houston school tries big classes

At a low-performing Houston middle school, the new principal is trying something very different: Classes of 75 students taught by five or more teachers.  Often, one teacher starts with a lesson, then the class breaks up into small groups based on level or learning style.  

(Instructional specialist Raymond) Cain said he first thought the change was too ambitious, but after a month of visiting classes, he rattles off positives: Teachers switch off taking charge based on who is best at explaining the topic of the day. One might have a trick for fractions while another excels at integers. Teachers can learn from each other. And if a student misbehaves, instruction doesn’t have to halt.

“When you don’t have to spend so much time on managing a class, you can deliver a more rigorous lesson,” said Principal Lannie Milton, Jr.

On a recent morning, about 70 seventh-graders filed into the old band room for math class. One of the seven teachers, Corey Gonsoulin, launched the lesson on dividing numbers with decimals. Writing on the dry-erase board, he showed the students how to move the decimal point.

“Do the opposite of Beyoncé Knowles,” he said. “Instead of going to the left, to the left” – as she says in one of her songs – “we go to the right, to the right.”

Gonsoulin then handed the marker to his colleague, Andre Roper, who wrote out four practice problems. Clifford Thomas, another math teacher, used a board on the side wall to explain to a group of confused students how to show their work process. Teacher Tereva Wright stopped at the desk of a boy not doing anything.

“In the beginning,” Wright said of Milon’s plan, “we felt like he was invading our privacy. We’re used to having our own area. It’s gotten better and better everyday.”

Class sizes averaged 35 students before the chance. It’s not clear to me how the principal could double class size and quintuple the number of teachers in the room.

Class size grows, but does it matter?

Class sizes are getting bigger, but does it really matter? “The relationship between class size and student outcomes is murky,” Hechinger’s Tamara Henry writes in USA Today

In the early 1990s, when many states were flush with cash, policymakers championed the findings of a 1985 experiment in Tennessee. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared academic achievement in small classes of 13 to 17 low-income students with that of students in classes that had 22 to 25 students. The experiment found modest but lasting gains for impoverished African-American students in the much smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade. States extrapolated from those findings to justify spending billions to make relatively modest cuts in class size in all schools, not just in those serving the poor.

California spent $20 billion to lower class size to 20 students in K-3. A follow-up study found no achievement gains, in part because districts had to hire poorly qualified teachers to lead extra classes.

The program was very popular, says Michael Kirst, an emeritus Stanford education professor.

“One lesson from California is that with parents, smaller class size is overwhelmingly favorable, and they don’t give a fig about the research that says this is not going to help their kids,” he says. “They intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention.”

Schools with easy-to-teach students were able to hire qualified teachers. Inner-city schools saw a significant decline in teacher quality.

In 2002, Florida voters to cut class size over time in all grades.

The state estimates that it will cost an additional $353 million this year, on top of the $16 billion the state has spent so far, to meet the requirements. In November, Florida voters will be asked to loosen those requirements to avoid massive spending cuts.

The Florida program had no effect on student achievement, according to a Harvard study released in May.

It’s more important to keep the best teachers than to keep classes small for all students, says Dan Goldhaber of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell. “The effects of class-size reduction are pretty marginal,” except in the early grades for disadvantaged students.

However, Kirst warns that California schools are facing “a very dangerous period. We are increasing class size to extremely high levels.

“I don’t worry about going from 20 to 25 students that much, or 15 to 20,” he says. “But when you go from 20 to 35 in a year or two, I don’t think we don’t know the effects of that.”

Years ago, I read research saying that most teachers teach in the same way — lecturing and asking questions — whether they have 35 students or 30 or 25 or even 20 in the class. Some said class size has to fall to 15 students to change the average teacher’s approach; others said classes with 10 to 12 students are needed. Today’s teachers, trained to be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage,” may have a harder time with the class sizes of yesteryear.

Class size soars in California

Teachers and parents complained of soaring class sizes — 45 in one fifth-grade class — at a Lodi, California school board meeting, reports the Lodi News-Sentinel. School started last week in the Central Valley district.

Trustees were expected to approve waivers to allow an average of 35 students in K-3.  Till recently, K-3 classes had only 20 students.

Already, Lodi has a junior high drama class with 50 students and a P.E. class with 84 students. High school classes average in the high 30s and low 40s.

Lodi Unified teachers rejected a 2 percent pay cut and furlough days; they are working without a contract. Teachers with less seniority have been laid off.

Via HechingerEd.

California: higher pay, lower funding

California teachers average $64,000 a year, the highest pay in the nation and about $12,000 over the national average. California spends $2,500 a year per student less than the national average.

Some unions have agreed to work fewer days for less pay, but teachers are reluctant to accept cuts in their wages and benefits. So classes are growing larger.