The Problem with Class-Size Reduction

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As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

If you ever want to start a near brawl in the teacher workroom nearest you, walk in and casually drop the following line:

There is no question that single-minded efforts to reduce class sizes are flawed and are limiting how successful schools can be.

Join our readers' discussion, “Class-Size Controversy.”

The reactions you’ll get are sure to be priceless. At first, your colleagues will be left slack jawed and unable to respond. Some may ask if you’re feeling OK. Others will wonder if they heard you correctly. Once they’re convinced that you’re serious, though, the sparks will start to fly!

You see, arguing for smaller class sizes has been a comfortable part of our collective teacher thinking for decades. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether it is some kind of reflexive behavior—a primal “teacher instinct” as natural as our inability to sleep the night before school starts in August or our intense dislike of car pool duty.

Like a lot of other instincts, our drive for smaller class sizes is based in our desire to succeed. We know that smaller class sizes mean more individual feedback for students. We know that smaller class sizes mean more differentiation—remediation for some and enrichment for others. We know that smaller class sizes mean deeply trusting relationships with children, and that quality relationships quite simply matter. We know that what we invest in our students is directly proportional to what they will achieve.

But like a lot of other instincts, our drive for smaller class sizes is egocentric, failing to consider what happens to students beyond just our rooms. Emotionally, smaller class sizes make sense—but logically, large-scale class-size reductions implemented without significant school reform efforts simply won’t benefit students on a large scale.

Straining Teacher Supply

How do I know?

Because I work in a district that grows by nearly 7,000 students annually. We’re opening 12 new schools next year alone, and have been forced to convert 30 others to a year-round calendar just to find seats for children. I also work in a state that hires over 40 percent of its teachers from out of state, attempting to fill nearly 10,000 vacant classroom positions each fall. Reduced class-size initiatives have opened an additional 1,600 positions, straining an already taxed supply of high-quality educators.

To meet this demand, our state has been forced to hire an increasingly large number of alternatively certified educators—whose numbers have grown by almost 250 percent in the past seven years. While these teachers can bring a wide range of meaningful experiences to the classroom, they often have little understanding of the demands and challenges of teaching. As a result, a large percentage leave the profession within their first five years.

Hidden Costs

Facilities are equally taxed by efforts to reduce class sizes. Teachers become nomads, pushing carts around buildings and teaching groups of children in spaces that vary depending on the day, week or month. Classrooms are set up in storage closets and other nooks and crannies that would appall unsuspecting parents. Mobile classrooms—cleverly nicknamed “educational cottages”—cover playgrounds and athletic fields. Class-size reductions are rarely matched with new facility construction, and many schools are literally bursting at the seams.

But what I worry about most are the hidden costs of these smaller class-size initiatives. Are we really benefiting students when we’re forced to place under-prepared teachers in a greater percentage of our classrooms? Will we get the same achievement gains from 23 students working with poorly supported teachers pulled from the bottom of an ever-dwindling supply pool as we do from 30 students working with truly accomplished professionals?

And who pays the bulk of these teacher-quality costs? Is it the students living in wealthy suburbs who go to new schools with supportive parents and tons of resources? Or is it the students in our highest-need schools—schools that often become educational turnstiles, employing a disproportionate number of alternatively certified teachers and rarely seeing consistency or stability in their faculties?

Class-size reductions are politically popular because they are politically safe. What parent wouldn’t vote for someone who promised that their child would be taught in a classroom where there was a chance they could develop a meaningful relationship with a caring educator? What teacher—and don’t forget that there are 3.2 million of us—wouldn’t want to elect a leader who argued in favor of shrinking class sizes from 30 to 23?

But class-size reductions are also political smokescreens, allowing decision-makers to ignore the more costly and complex task of attracting, developing, and retaining highly accomplished teachers for America’s classrooms. Yes, some class-size reductions can make a difference for our kids, but not until we can guarantee an adequate, continuing supply of effective educators. We do that by investing in quality teacher-preparation programs, improving teacher working conditions, elevating the status of the teaching profession, and paying educators a professionally competitive salary.

If you'd like to talk more about this, you're likely to find me in the converted dish-storage room, just off the cafeteria, wishing for a window.

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