Larger Class Sizes for Effective Teachers?

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 28, 2009 2 min read
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If you were a confident, highly effective educator, would you agree to take on a class size of 25 rather than 20, if you got a significant pay boost? How about 30 students? 35?

That’s basically the idea behind a new white paper released by the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Goldwater Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. (The paper doesn’t appear to be on the Web site just yet, but it should be soon.)

Some of the ideas it raises you’ve probably heard before: Using “value-added” test-score growth as the basis of a merit-based pay system for teachers, with both schoolwide and individual growth targets. But the paper also raises this intriguing idea: Once you have a reliable system for identifying the most effective teachers, why not give more kids access to those teachers?

Using per-pupil funding for charter schools in Arizona, the paper suggests that a highly effective teacher would receive two-thirds of a student’s per-pupil allocation in his or her salary, or about $5,200, for each additional student she takes on. (The remaining third would go to the school.) Combined with a merit-pay scheme, this system could net our best educators salaries of upwards of $100,000 a year, and allow more U.S. students to be taught by the best teachers out there, the paper suggests.

Sound far-fetched? Well, independent of the report, I was on the phone last week with a source who was telling me about teacher contracts that include language on class size and that require teachers who end up with larger class sizes to receive additional compensation. In practice, the source told me, a principal will ask some of the good teachers before the beginning of the school year if they’d be OK with taking on some additional students and receiving the pay bonuses. It’s one way, the source suggested, a district could save money in tough times, rather than hiring a new teacher.

Both of the papers’ ideas are likely to be controversial, especially with the national teachers’ unions. The unions don’t like the idea of performance-based pay based on these value-added gains, and are also proponents of class-size reduction. (See here and here for background.)

But on the other hand, it seems like this could offer some relief to the great class-size reduction debate that continually seems to plague K-12 education. This debate centers on whether it’s better to have smaller classes, which has generally been the U.S.'s main teacher-quality solution, or to have fewer, more highly trained and effective teachers.

Aside from the obvious political challenges, the paper also outlines a couple of cultural challenges to raising class sizes. In a few focus groups conducted by the institute, researchers found that parents really seem wedded to smaller classes, even after they’ve been apprised of the research that shows that teacher effectiveness in general trumps class size. In other words, there is a strong sociological element going on here that will make pushing this idea forward a lot tougher.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.