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Federal Commentary

President Obama: Time for a Federal Small-Class Program

By Herbert J. Gans — April 27, 2009 3 min read

Although the education portions of President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus package are aimed first at preventing layoffs in existing programs, eventually the time should be ripe for ambitious long-term projects. One, perhaps the first, ought to support the reduction of class size in every nursery school, kindergarten, and elementary school in the country. Enough evidence now exists to persuade political decisionmakers that small classes help improve teacher and student performance. Currently more important, reducing almost every class to 20 and eventually to 15 students would create many jobs for new teachers, as well as for classroom construction or reconstruction.

Hiring the new teachers and building the classrooms will be as expensive as they are labor-intensive. Both will take many years, and will have to progress in stages, the speed depending on both the availability of federal funds and the political and economic need to create new jobs.

But the program ought to begin in the poorest school districts with the largest classes, where class-size reduction is most needed and will be most effective. If and when the money is available, class size should then be reduced in the many middle-class communities that cannot afford to do so without federal help.

Perhaps small classes would even help raise school performance in middle and high schools, although so far the research on the subject remains ambiguous. Not all classes need to be small, but the more individualized attention possible in small classes must benefit older students as much as younger ones. If that attention can improve teaching and learning in the higher grades, smaller classes could be extremely helpful in readying the country’s economy for the heightened global competition to come.

Even if limited to lower-level schools, the small-class project would supply some necessary political rewards. It would send federal funds to all congressional districts, reducing the pressure on elected officials to pursue appropriations earmarks. Moreover, small classes would better equalize the schools than the Bush administration’s failed attempt to leave no child behind.

In addition, the program might go a long way toward ending some current educational conflicts that spill over into politics. When all public school classes are small, the present differences between traditional and progressive education will be less relevant. Rote learning and other shortcuts required by teaching to the test could be terminated, while charter schools and voucher schemes might lose much of their present political glamour.

Whatever reduced class sizes would do for students, the teaching profession might reap the greatest benefits.

First, small classes should increase the satisfaction from and the attractiveness of the profession, and thus also attract talented young people who now head for other careers. Indeed, they may be talented enough to put an end to the illusory search for superhuman teachers who can make educational miracles happen even in large classes. Such teachers exist mainly in the movies.

Second, the teaching jobs would replace some of the many manufacturing, investment-banking, and other jobs now being lost and unlikely to be needed in the economy of the future. Third, sensitive recruiting should attract more teachers from low- and moderate-income backgrounds, who may be better able to help children who lag behind their peers or act out in class.

Private schools may be unhappy about losing their virtual monopoly on small classes and extra attention, but they could still offer status and status symbols that are off-limits in public education. Instead, the public schools could try once more to pursue their founders’ objectives: encouraging more equality and advancing democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as President Obama:Time for a Federal Small-Class Program

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