Will small class sizes improve education?
Real Questions, Good Answers, Knowledge Quest, Vol #2 no. 4
St Paul Pioneer Press, Jan 21 1999
As I write this, elections are only a week or so away. Here in Minnesota, education has been an oft-mentioned campaign issue. While vouchers, school choice, charter schools, and our state’s new graduation requirements are all fiercely debated by the candidates, one plan seems to be overwhelmingly popular: reducing class sizes.
One the surface, lowering class sizes from 25 or 30 to 15 or 17 seems like something all parents would want for their children. More individual attention from teachers and more personal interaction with classmates in less crowded classrooms are desirable goals. Research showing a correlation between student achievement and class size is controversial and inconclusive, but common sense seems to dictate that the more personal time given to a child, the more productive and happier that child should be.
So politicians have been advocating adding more teachers. Parents are happy, teachers unions are happy, and colleges of education are happy. Now I hate to sound cynical, but when everybody is that happy, something must be wrong.
There are three major problems with this simple solution to the problems of education:
1. Teacher salaries are not the only costs of lowering class sizes. If a building’s student population is 500 and class sizes are 25, it needs 20 classrooms. If the student population is 500 and class sizes are 17, that one building needs to add at least nine more classrooms. Do we build a new wing (usually at local rather than state cost), reallocated space within the school (gyms, cafeterias, media centers, music rooms, computer labs, art rooms), or add temporary classrooms (less green space, more utility bills, acquisition costs). More classrooms mean more maintenance work, more teacher manuals, more globes, more classroom computers, more desks, more telephones, more audio-visual equipment, and more administrative tasks. Classrooms are more than just teachers.
2. Quality teachers are becoming increasingly scarce. The Minneapolis Star Tribune of October 22, 1998 reported:
- Nationally, 50,000 people are entering teaching now without full licensure
- Nationally, two-thirds of urban school districts allow non-certified teachers to teach
- 15% of all Minnesota teachers will be retiring within the next 5 years
Districts in the South are offering teacher recruitment bonuses. I expect schools can find warm bodies to stand in front of classrooms. But do political leaders have the stomach to fund the low class size initiative to the extent that we can offer bright, young college graduates salaries that would be competitive with business or other professions in order to increase the pool of talented teachers? Studies DO show that there is a direct correlation between teacher quality and student achievement.
3. Underfunding a class-size reduction plan will divert funds from other effective educational areas. The appeal of lower class size is so powerful, many schools will jump at the chance for additional funding for it even if that funding is not adequate to actually do the job. So where will the extra funds come from? Other budgets, of course. That will mean fewer textbooks, older library materials, broken computers, fewer classroom aides, and poorer building maintenance. Fewer extra curricular activities and support services like counselors, music teachers, and media specialists. Like a half-taken prescription of antibiotics that causes an increased resistance in the targeted infection, change efforts that are underfunded create disillusionment, weaken other programs, and give the appearance of a school’s inability to change. Johnson’s Antibiotic Law of Educational Change: If you can’t afford the whole cure, don’t even start the cure.
Parents and educators should be asking not whether they want their children in classes of 17, but do they want them in classes of 17 that meet in converted gyms with inexperienced, unlicensed teachers who have no support materials. Instead of advocating for lower class sizes, let’s look at the solution in terms of:
- Lowering the adult to child ratio in the schools by hiring full time paraprofessionals for each class. These folks can handle paper work, help with minor discipline problems, and provide individualized instruction. A class of 30 with a full time para under the supervision of a full time teacher still has a 15 to 1 big person to little person ratio.
- Hiring adequate support staff with professional expertise to support the classroom teachers. Education has grown more complex. Teachers need help with developing better assessments, writing individualized education plans, creating lessons that incorporate technology and research skills, and dealing with severe behavior problems. Guidance counselors, social workers, instructional design experts, and especially good media specialists are needed in schools. It’s a quality media specialist who can help teachers use resource-based teaching to increase learning, increase motivation, teach higher level thinking skills, design authentic assessments, and meet the individual needs of all children. Budget enough so that they can be flexibly scheduled. No need to pay for high priced babysitters to provide teacher preparation time. Think of it this way: what’s the point of having a class of 15 if they are only being lectured to in exactly the same way as the class of 30?
- Providing adequate resources for learning. Teachers need stuff to help them teach. Current stuff like textbooks for every child, maps, science equipment, computers, and library books, magazines and research materials. Schools need fast Internet connections and funding for field trips and guest speakers and science fairs. And, schools need to have the funds to train teachers how to use these resources.
Ideally education would be funded so well that schools with small class sizes would also have good classroom space, excellent materials and well-qualified teachers. But if I had the choice of improving my schools by adding a full-time, enthusiastic, well-trained media specialist in every building who can work with teachers and students to use technology and resources well or dropping classes size by one or two students, I know which option I’d choose. Don’t let the politicians off the hook with this simplistic answer to all of off education’s problems. Lowering classes sizes alone is a solution that H.L. Menken would have called “neat, plausible and wrong.”