Whats Behind the War on Class Size

Jeff Bryant

To all those out there who are clamoring for “market-based” approaches to education reform, please tell me this: What kind of a business slashes inventory in the face of increasing demand?

Because that is exactly what’s going on with public education in America today. Many states that are experiencing the sharpest increases in student enrollment (pdf) are, at the same time, mandating the most extreme cutbacks in education spending, effectively reducing the inventory of education opportunity available to the nation’s children and youth. Just take a look at Texas.

Texas this year added the highest number of new students to its system of any state in the country, taking in nearly 85,000 new students. Faced with demand increases of this magnitude, how did members of the Republican-dominated state legislature respond? By putting forth bills that would reduce the state’s public school budget by at least 13 percent — nearly $3.5 billion a year. According to the New York Times, “School administrators predict that as many as 100,000 school employees would have to be laid off to absorb the cuts.”

In Florida, a state that added over 15,500 new students, education cuts proposed by its Tea Party-backed governor could lead to 20,000 teacher layoffs.

In Georgia, which ranked fourth in the number of new student additions, yet another hard-charging Republican-led administration has pushed through sharp reductions in school allocations, leading to, according to Georgia PTA (powerpoint) cuts of $6,000 per classroom or $711.06 per student enrolled, even without adjusting for inflation.

Virginia, a state with smaller but still significant increases in enrollment, cut $341 million in state funding in fiscal 2010.

Free market-minded Democratic leaders are jumping on the cut-happy bandwagon as well, with Colorado’s governor proposing to “drop school spending to 2007-08 levels” and reduce average per-pupil funding by $500, despite the addition of almost 11,000 more students to school enrollments. And state leaders in Illinois welcomed the addition of over 14,000 new students this year by slashing early childhood, bilingual education, after-school programs, and reimbursements for school; cutting truancy and alternative education programs in half; and ending student health and safety programs completely.

Cuts of this magnitude will have new and dramatic impacts on what parents will encounter next fall when they bring their children back to school after the summer break. When schools have had to cut back on spending in the past, what that mostly entailed was eliminating non-teaching positions “on the periphery,” like janitors and school psychologists, or delayed equipment upgrades and building maintenance. Then in more severe cases, when schools were hit with “across the board” reductions, it meant getting rid of targeted services such as the reading specialists who help kids with dyslexia or the school’s foreign language program. As long as your kid could read okay and wasn’t interested in speaking Mandarin, what did you care? But cuts being enacted across the country today go far beyond that – cutting into teaching positions and “core programs.”

As teacher and edu-bloger Anthony Cody explains, when the state of California, another high-growth enrollment state, considers cutting $25 billion from state education spending, the ramifications for his school in inner-city Oakland are that “one teacher in four got a pink slip, as did every principal. If these cuts go through, we will see class sizes increase to 35 to 40 students per class, and we will lose every single counselor and librarian. Special education students currently receiving the benefit of smaller classes and specialized instruction will be merged into regular classes, and even the aides that assist them will be laid off, or given caseloads of dozens to support.”

In other words, the new target for state government cutbacks on education is classroom teachers themselves and school children who are the neediest in terms of extra time and attention. The unavoidable outcome is larger class sizes for virtually all children and the teacher-force being spread thinner and thinner throughout every community.

Fiscally conservative governors aren’t the only ones spearheading the campaign against teachers and class sizes. On the national level, the rich and the powerful on all sides of the political spectrum are helping to soften the target. Bill Gates started off the enabling of the budget hawks when he declared that lifting caps on class sizes would magically get more students in front of the very best teachers. By “identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students,” he opined, schools could somehow improve instructional outcomes and spend way less on personnel. Never mind that there currently is no reliable system for actually doing this, and indeed may never be.

Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was quick to chime in with support for this pipedream, calling for “modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” Bolstering his case for rethinking the benefits of small class sizes, the Center of American Progress released its latest in a long string of misguided education studies proclaiming the “inefficiency” of small class sizes. Inefficient “compared to what?” asked school finance wiz Bruce Baker, pointing out that CAP never even considers the supposed greater efficiencies of potential alternatives.

The main obstacle to this concerted assault on class size is that parents think that keeping classes small is really, really important. In fact, they’ve actually voted for it all across the country. Given this strong parent and voter backing behind class size limits, Education Week recaps:

The national ratio of students to their teachers fell between 1980 and 2008, from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Because the statistics count special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular teachers do, the U.S. Department of Education estimates the current average class size at more like 25 students.

Parents recognize intuitively that smaller class sizes make a difference. Rachel Levy, a parent herself as well as a former teacher, explains:

Teaching is not like showing a movie in a movie theater where everyone has the same experience no matter how many people are in theater, nor is learning a passive experience. Teaching can be more like being a server in a restaurant: after a certain point, the more tables you have to wait on, the worse your service is going to be, especially if each table is full, with different orders, and even different menus. I don’t want my own children going to a school that is modeled after a McDonald’s, nor do I want as a teacher to be the equivalent of a McDonald’s worker.

But parents’ approval of smaller class sizes isn’t based on intuition alone. There is a significant body of research validating the benefits of small class sizes. Leonie Haimson, parent advocate and Executive Director of the grassroots education group Class Size Matters, provides a lot of clarity here. Writing in Huffington Post , she explains

The STAR experiment from Tennessee, widely regarded as one of the best studies in the history of public education, found significantly different outcomes for students depending on what class size they were randomly assigned within this range. Those who were placed in smaller classes of 13-17 students scored significantly higher on tests, received better grades and exhibited improved attendance and behavior than those assigned to classes of 22-26 students.
The benefits of reduced class size lasted throughout a student’s educational career. In fourth, sixth and eighth grade, students who were in a smaller class in the early grades were ahead of their peers academically. In high school, they had lower drop-out rates, higher grades and received better results on their college entrance exams.

That few people – outside of parents, educators, and the people who listen to them – understand the real impact of spending cuts and increasing class sizes is understandable because the media hardly ever does any reporting about it. In fact, a new study from Brookings last week found that in 2009 “only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education.” 2008, an election year, was even worse when “only 0.7 percent of national news coverage involved education.”

Leaders in our state houses and federal government should know better. And actually they probably really do. But rather than working to provide parents and communities the schools they want, the determined agenda is to turn schools into places that parents will ultimately reject, with overcrowded classrooms, beleaguered teachers delivering one-size-fits all instruction, and rapidly diminishing attention to the specific needs of children. Then everyone will blame educators.

And although the politicians, philanthropists, and pundits may like to talk about how hard times, competition, and cutting “fat” makes for “leaner and meaner” organizations, they also know that enterprises that reduce their products and services during a time of increasing demand lose out to their competitors and eventually go out of business. Which is, come to think of it, exactly what the self-anointed “reformers” are aiming to do.

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