The Case For Larger Classes: Does class size matter? The research is inconclusive, but teachers say there's plenty of anecdotal evidence in favor of small classes. And even if the difference is slight, they argue, reducing student-teacher ratios is still worth the high price tag. A number of states have either reduced class size or are planning to, and President Clinton has proposed shrinking class size in the early grades by hiring 100,000 new teachers over the next seven years, at a cost of $12 billion. That, argue Chester Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli in the Weekly Standard (March 9), would be a big mistake. "This is quintessential Clintonism," they write, "a warm Labrador puppy of a policy notion, petted by teachers and parents alike but destined to bite when it grows up." Indeed, they argue that Clinton would do better to fire 100,000 teachers. "Students," they assert, "would be in larger classes but with better teachers, who could be paid more with the salary moneys freed up by the layoffs... The leading problem in many classrooms, after all, isn't the pupil body count. It's teachers who never mastered the content." As for teachers' intuition about smaller classes, well, that's just a myth, the authors contend. "There's a simple reason why small classes rarely learn more than big ones: Their teachers don't do anything differently. The same lessons, textbooks, and instructional methods are typically employed with 18 or 20 children as with 25 or 30. It's just that the teacher has fewer papers to grade and fewer parents to confer with. Getting any real achievement bounce from class shrinking hinges on teachers who know their stuff and use proven methods of instruction."
Taking Homeschooling To Task: Once a relatively limited phenomenon, homeschooling has become increasingly popular in the United States. An estimated 1 million children are now taught at home, and advocates of the practice often cite a study, sponsored by the National Home Education Research Institute, showing that homeschooled children outperform their school-taught peers. According to that report, the average public school student scores in the 50th percentile on national tests, while the average homeschooler scores in the 80th to 87th percentile. "That sounds like an open-and-shut case for homeschooling," writes Katherine Pfleger in the New Republic (April 6). But the study may be misleading. For one thing, it averages percentiles from several different tests, comparing the scores of homeschoolers nationwide with those of public school students from only the state of Virginia. And the homeschoolers were selected by sending out a questionnaire, making them a self-selected group, not a representative sample. "And there's the rub," Pfleger writes. "In order to assess homeschooling's effectiveness, researchers need full access to homeschooled children. Unfortunately, many homeschooling parents—particularly those in the religious right, who are also the most organized group within the movement—are vehemently opposed to any outside interference." Pfleger chides the press for being "too busy touting homeschooling miracles to look at the movement critically." The public, she writes, "needs to hear about the overextended mothers, like the one I interviewed while she juggled a telephone, a toddler screaming for a piece of string cheese, and a 2nd grader she was supposed to be homeschooling."
Big Bang: Three years ago, when Paul Vallas was named chief of the troubled Chicago Public Schools, he promised some changes—big changes. The former budget director for Mayor Richard Daley, Vallas came armed with a numbers-cruncher mentality and a keen sense for publicity. Forbes magazine (April 6) now credits the 44-year-old offspring of blue-collar Greek immigrants with transforming the district into "a model of sorts for urban public education." Later this year, Vallas plans to move the Board of Education headquarters from its current home—a massive former Army supply depot—to smaller quarters closer to downtown. "His dream plan for the old building," Forbes reports, "is symbolic as well as practical: He wants to have a teacher plunge a detonator that will blow up the building, reducing it to rubble."