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School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Big Picture

By Saul Cooperman — December 21, 2005 6 min read
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Back in 1982, as New Jersey’s commissioner of education, I made several recommendations to then-Governor 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 inservice 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.

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 a standard class size of 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.

Are smaller classes good public policy?

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 observed 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 educators teach 20 children exactly the same way they would teach 30; there is no real change in technique, 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, a jump of $850,000—more than 51 percent. Add the cost of new classrooms necessary to house the extra 17 teachers, as well as 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 smaller-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 teachers’ 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 Whitehurst, 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.

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.

What about the justifiable gripe that mediocre teachers would be rewarded equally with 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 evaluations result in almost every teacher 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 the process the most important task of the administration. With more than 60 percent of every current- expense portion of the budget allocated to teacher salaries and benefits, attention to this issue 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 on emotion? Maybe. Facts are stubborn things, and if the debate on this proposal could be played out in the field of research and not 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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as The Big Picture

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