Yesterday the State Senate rolled out a budget proposal that includes a provision to raise the average class size by two students for the next two years. The changes would save the state about $322 million for each of the next two years. Not chump change. Governor Perdue’s office said she is “troubled” by the proposal and said the changes would result in the elimination of about 6,200 teaching positions and a reduction in the amount of individual attention children receive in the classroom. The battlelines are being drawn.
While class size is not unimportant, for too long it’s been sold as the panacea for all educational difficulties. It’s not. I think it's one of the five big myths of public education. It’s been debated endlessly. North Carolina has spent millions over the last few years to reduce class size. You couldn’t tell from the test results. Most class size reduction proponents point to the Tennessee STAR study as evidence that reducing class size does improve student learning. While benefits did accrue to disadvantaged students, a closer look reveals methodological shortcomings impacted test results.
Teachers unions are big proponents of the class size argument – and for obvious reason. However, the research suggests we’d be far better off to focus resources on teacher quality rather than simply bringing in more teachers to teach smaller classes. Yes, reducing class size may help in some cases. Still it's wrong in theory and practice to think such a solution would have the same results in all districts. Blindly forcing school districts to hire more and more teachers to meet class size requirements is not without consequence. Oftentimes, teachers must be hired who don’t have the proper background or training. A 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California suggested that smaller class requirements in that state actually worked against the best interest of California students since it forced many school districts to hire unqualified teachers.
This noise merely tells us the teachers' unions have successfully used the class size issue to derail debate from a needed focus on improving teacher quality. Next time you’re in a discussion with an advocate of smaller class sizes ask two questions: 1) If class size is so important why do other countries with significantly larger average classrooms consistently outscore the United States where smaller class sizes are the norm?; and 2) Would you rather have your child taught by a good teacher in a large class or an average teacher in a small class?