One of the issues discussed during the campaign for the bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, was class size. A major reason given by the district for the need for the bond issue is the desire to provide smaller class sizes. Some opponents such as myself argued that the evidence that small class sizes produce better student outcomes is sketchy. Also, small class sizes are very expensive.
Just thinking about it, it seems like small class sizes would be great for student achievement. More individual attention and all that. But that’s not evidence.
A recent article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell — no one would mistake him for a conservative — tackles this issue. I use the word “tackles” as much of the article uses the difficulty of predicting which college football quarterbacks are likely to succeed in the professional league. Here’s what Gladwell learned from Eric Hanushek:
What’s more — and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world — the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast. … Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
That’s a powerful finding. I wonder if the Wichita school district is aware of this? Here’s some more about how importance of teacher characteristics:
If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.
So how do we get more great teachers? Raise the pay of all existing teachers? Require more education and certification?
… investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom.
The problem is that the current standards for teachers don’t “track what we care about.” The path to increased pay as a teacher — longevity and more education credentials — doesn’t produce better teachers. But because of union contracts that govern pay, that’s the only way to earn more as a teacher. This is one of the reasons why teachers unions are harmful to schools.
Unfortunately for Wichita schoolchildren, USD 259 has started down a long and expensive path that is likely to produce little in the way of positive results. The existing ways of doing things are reinforced. Reform is postponed. Opportunities are foregone.
Read the article at Most Likely to Succeed.