School Climate & Safety Opinion

Increase Class Size— And Pay Teachers More

By Saul Cooperman — November 01, 2005 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Back in 1982, as New Jersey’s commissioner of education, I made several recommendations to then-Gov. Thomas H. Kean concerning teachers. These ideas, all of which the governor embraced, stirred controversy, but also put our state on the cutting edge of school reform. The alternate route to certification was a rigorous system designed to open the doors of teaching to bright and talented graduates of liberal arts colleges. Dramatic increases in beginning teachers’ salaries were to create a ripple effect that would raise all teaching salaries. Changes in staff development turned the emphasis from single in-service days and college courses to solving the practical problems teachers face. With access to excellent research, teachers could apply the information where it counted, in the classroom. And a program honoring the state’s outstanding teachers was instituted to provide the recognition that fuels motivation and builds professional identity.

Laura Costas


These ideas were all implemented between 1983 and 1990. They were important because they recognized, in a practical way, what we all pay lip service to: the notion that teachers are extremely important. With this in mind, I have a suggestion that would significantly upgrade the quality of teachers in our country, reduce persistent teacher shortages, increase student learning, and not cost any more money. What’s the catch? It would require establishing class size at from 30 to 35 students in all grades except K-3.

What I am suggesting is heresy to most people, because everybody seems to love smaller classes. Teachers want them; parents believe the smaller, the better; and the public generally has bought in. Unions love small classes because the smaller the class size, the more teachers there are, and the more union dues. And to the graduate schools of education, having more teachers for smaller classes is a cash cow.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Of course, the research has been decidedly mixed for many years. For every study showing that class size makes a difference, another study says it does not. Recently, the University of London’s Institute of Education traced 21,000 British children over three years of schooling. The researchers concluded that, for the most part, class size seemed to matter little to the students’ progress in English, math, and science.

Undaunted by such findings, the smaller-is-better advocates feel that children will receive more attention as the pupil-to-teacher ratio is reduced, and therefore will learn more. And if class size is 20 instead of 30, teachers feel there will be a greater opportunity to individualize their lessons, fewer children who might be discipline problems, and less time needed to grade papers.

But the question remains: Are smaller classes good public policy? Most teachers teach 20 children exactly the same way they would teach 30; there is no real change in most teachers’ approach to how they teach, despite fluctuations in class size. Individualization is more intention than reality.

And there couldn’t be a more costly approach than small class size in the eternal attempt to improve student learning. For example, for a school of 1,000 students with a class size of 30, we would need 33 teachers. For the same 1,000 students, if the class size were 20, we would need 50 teachers. If the average salary for our teachers were $50,000, the payroll for the 33 teachers would be $1.65 million. For 50 teachers, the payroll increases to $2.5 million, an increase of $850,000—more than 51 percent. Add the cost of new classrooms necessary to house the extra 17 teachers, and the yearly expense to maintain the additional space (heat, light, janitorial service, insurance, and so forth), and the result is clear: a tremendous commitment of dollars. In the name of “quality education,” school administrators continue to recommend this approach, and school boards seldom question whether it is worth the money.

There is an alternative to the lower-is-better panacea that is not complicated at all. But, as I’ve indicated, it is heretical to most educators and parents alike. Increase class size and use the money saved to pay teachers more. Take the additional $850,000 that would be used to reduce class size and use it to increase teacher’s salaries.

So if we raised class size and salaries in our hypothetical school of 1,000 students, we would have 33 teachers making an average of $75,757, not $50,000. What would this get us? We would need fewer teachers, so the shortage in any school or district would decrease significantly, or perhaps even be eliminated. But this is only one reason for trying the approach. The primary reason is that the higher pay would attract a much better pool of candidates.

Brighter teachers are the best hope we have of increasing student performance. Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, has said that “the most robust finding in current research literature is the effect of teacher verbal and cognitive ability on student achievement.” So, the brighter the teacher, the better the chance for students to learn more. This needs to be repeated: The brighter the teacher, the better the chance for students to learn more. And thousands of very bright and able people would choose to teach if salaries were dramatically increased.

Would teachers’ unions buy this plan? On a local school level, I think so, because unions first and foremost are made up of people who operate in their members’ interest. And a 51 percent pay raise is certainly in a union member’s interest! Would the local unions oppose the trade-off of increased class size for a pay raise of more than $25,000 per member? I doubt it. At the state level, however, unions might argue against such a proposal. As a practical matter, needing fewer teachers would mean fewer dues-paying members, with a loss of financial clout for the union’s lobbying and political agendas.

Most teachers teach 20 children exactly the same way they would teach 30; there is no real change in most teachers’ approach to how they teach, despite fluctuations in class size.

What about the justifiable gripe that mediocre teachers would be rewarded equally with the outstanding ones? This concern is as valid today as it would be if boards of education implemented this approach. A solution is something that is long overdue in most districts, and the problem is not unique to my proposal.

While some districts have comprehensive and fair systems of supervision and evaluation for teachers, most do not. A majority of administrators and supervisors engage in what former General Electric CEO Jack Welch refers to as “superficial congeniality.” The supervision is superficial, and evaluation results in almost every teacher’s being recommended for the standard annual increase in salary. Yet there are many models of good supervisory and evaluation plans available that could be implemented. The only thing missing in most districts is the will to make supervision and evaluation the most important job of the administration. With more than 60 percent of every current-expense portion of the budget allocated to teachers’ salaries and benefits, attention must be paid, whether or not my suggestion to raise salaries and class size is taken.

The forces supporting the status quo in any aspect of life are powerful, and education is no exception. Will educators and parents debate this proposal on the facts, rather than emotion? Maybe. Facts are stubborn things, and if the debate on this proposal could be played out in the field of research, rather than through anecdotal examples, change just might occur in hundreds of school districts.

Were that to happen, such districts would be able to demonstrate that they can hire more highly qualified teachers, while at the same time reducing or eliminating teacher shortages—with students as the ultimate beneficiaries.

It can be done.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Increase Class Size— And Pay Teachers More

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.