Teacher Preparation

Class Size, Teacher Quality Take Center Stage at Hearing

By Joetta L. Sack — May 05, 1999 3 min read

Teacher quality and class-size reduction, two recurring themes for President Clinton and congressional Republicans, came up for discussion on Capitol Hill last week at a time when many lawmakers are looking for ways to revamp federal education programs to raise student achievement.

Congress will decide this year whether to continue to authorize funding for Mr. Clinton’s highly touted class-size-reduction plan--which was financed at $1.2 billion for the current fiscal year--or to eliminate or change the program. The initiative has been unpopular with many GOP members of the education panels.

In addition, House Republicans plan to write their own bill on teacher quality and class-size reduction in the coming weeks as part of this year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal K-12 education law.

Last Thursday, the Postsecondary Education, Training, and Lifelong Learning Subcommittee held the first of a series of hearings to examine the effects of teacher quality and smaller classes--a multifaceted issue with no obvious federal response, a panel of teachers and researchers agreed.

“Several things come up: class size, professional development, teacher preparation,” said subcommittee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. “It’s hard to know where to start.”

Class-Size Questions

Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington, meanwhile, have introduced Mr. Clinton’s legislation to continue funding his class-size-reduction plan over the next six years.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley went to Capitol Hill to rally for support for the plan last Thursday. The initiative would provide funding to help schools hire 100,000 new teachers over seven years.

During the House subcommittee hearing, also last Thursday, the teachers and researchers who testified agreed that having good teachers in the classroom is vital.

“The most important factor, bar none, is the teacher,” said Sandra P. Horn, a researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her work has shown that an ineffective teacher can affect student learning for years--and that having two ineffective teachers in subsequent years will permanently damage a student’s academic career.

On the same day as the hearing, officials with Project STAR, the Tennessee study that Mr. Clinton has repeatedly cited for its support of smaller class sizes, released a follow-up study that reiterated their original conclusions.

Students in smaller classes in grades K-3 were “far ahead” of regular classes and classes with aides, researcher Helen Pate-Bain told the House panel.

But other experts dispute the efficacy of smaller class sizes as a means of improving student achievement.

Caroline M. Hoxby, an associate professor of economics at Harvard University, presented her recent study of class-size reduction in “natural environments” where, she said, unlike in the STAR study, teachers did not know their students’ test scores would be analyzed and did not receive incentives to raise achievement levels. Her research found no correlation between smaller classes and student achievement.

But some classroom educators questioned the relevance of such findings. Without a good working environment--including a manageable class size--good teachers are likely to leave the field, two veteran teachers testified.

Teacher Satisfaction

Too many teachers leave education because of low pay, overwhelming workloads, and a lack of respect for the profession, said Linda B. Koutoufas, an elementary school teacher in Virginia Beach, Va. “I have had as many as 36 1st graders in my class, and as few as 22. Believe me, no new study is needed to tell you that 22 is better,” she said.

Class size is important, Ms. Horn of the University of Tennessee agreed, “if you want a teacher to be happy and stay in the field.”

“Nonetheless,” she said, “a good teacher is what matters.”

Ms. Hoxby said when class-size-reduction policies are put in place, schools in more affluent districts often hire the best teachers from schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

Rep. Matthew Martinez of California, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said he preferred to consider the real-life anecdotes rather than the research on class-size reduction, because he worries that the existing research is biased. “It’s a no-brainer to say, first you need a good teacher, and you can’t overburden that teacher,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Class Size, Teacher Quality Take Center Stage at Hearing

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