Class-Size Myth Tested Yet Again

Other than school choice, no issue riles the teachers unions more than class-size.

A couple of weeks ago, Edunomics Lab, a university-based research center that focuses on “exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions,” released a report in which it claims to have figured out a way to pay some teachers more without taking money away from other areas or sticking it to the taxpayer.

The way forward? Increasing the class sizes of only the most effective teachers. “Targeted increases in class-size would require fewer teachers overall and the savings from the reduced number of teachers could be repurposed as bonuses for the teachers taking on larger classes. It would also, importantly, improve net student learning as more students would be taught by the most effective teachers.”

In simpler terms, “Get rid of the bottom performers and redistribute students to the better teachers and pay them more using the money that no longer goes to teachers who are now seeking other means of employment.”

Being taught by a top performing teacher trumps whatever gains that are “alleged” to occur when classes are small. I say “alleged” because the most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, and found that only 15 percent of the studies indicated an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent showed no effect at all. Worse, 13 percent found that reducing class-size actually had a negative effect on student learning.

While there is virtually no proof that smaller classes lead to higher achievement, parents do tend to favor them. However, parents put even greater value in teacher effectiveness. The report cites a survey that asks parents if they would “prefer their child to be placed into a class of 27 students ‘taught by one of the district’s best performing teachers’ or into a class of 22 students ‘taught by a randomly chosen teacher.’” Seventy-three percent of the parents opted for the larger class with an effective teacher.

So kids and high-caliber teachers are better off at no extra expense to the taxpayer. Sounds good, but the National Education Association is kvetching.

NEA writer Tim Walker refers to the plan as a “scheme to reduce the teaching force.” Education professor Priscilla Hinchey, the union’s point person, charged that the Edunomics Lab analysis is “built on a house of cards” and is “unsubstantiated by any original or existing research.” Dr. Hinchey clearly needs to be introduced to Dr. Hanushek.

In any event, the union’s rejoinders to the Edunomics Lab report are so weak they’re really not worth delving into, but if you insist, go here. It is the unstated reasons for the union’s dismissal of the ideas put forth in the report that are worth a mention:

1. Larger classes mean fewer teachers which translate to less dues money for the union.
2. By suggesting paying superior teachers more for their efforts, the report acknowledges that some teachers are better than others, thus destroying the union’s notion that all teachers are worthy of our love, admiration and scarce taxpayer dollars.
3. The report claims that if their plan is instituted, education would be improved at no cost to the taxpayer. For the teacher union elite and their fellow travelers, better education only happens when the taxpayer pours endless money into the education abyss. (That we have almost tripled our spending since 1970 with no uptick in achievement is never acknowledged by the union crowd.)

One last word on the subject. If the unions are right and class-size really does matter, then the highest performing countries in the world would have the fewest students per class. This is anything but the case however. In fact, of 34 countries measured, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found the U.S. to have classes slightly under the average at 20-22 students per class, depending on grade level. But countries like China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, France, Spain and Germany have larger class-size and outperform us in math, reading and science.

Once again, the National Education Association has shown it has no interest in any kind of meaningful education reform. It stubbornly adheres to the moribund status quo, as any interruption to their gravy train is simply not acceptable. Improving the lives of students, good teachers and the taxpayer is not even a blip on their radar screen.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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