With a big assist from the teachers unions, the small class size myth lives on.
“The sky is falling” is well-known throughout the world as an admonition to be wary of hysterical claims. While we appreciate the silliness of the Chicken Little story, we fail to recognize its relevance in many of the myths perpetuated by the education establishment, one of the most enduring of which is the claim that class size affects student achievement.
Let me begin by saying that, as a teacher, I liked small classes. Why wouldn’t I? There were fewer papers to grade, report cards to fill out and parents to deal with. In other words, small class size made life easier on me. But I never deluded myself into thinking that my students were getting a superior education when I was teaching 20 instead of 25 of them. It is true that there are a few exceptions like certain special education classes where the kids need more individual attention. But, by and large, the smaller-is-better meme is pure bunkum.
Because small class size benefits them, the most vocal hucksters perpetuating the fiction are the nation’s teachers unions. Smaller classes = more teachers = more dues money. Just last month United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew proposed ending tax breaks for landlords in New York City who are not residents of Gotham. The resulting $900 million windfall would net the city the classroom space and labor needed to reduce class size in grades K-3. (It is important to note that many parents favor smaller classes too because their kids get more individual attention that way.)
But as Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek recently wrote in the New York Daily News,
Nobody has shown that the substantial class-size reductions of the past 15 years have paid off in terms of student achievement. Instead, the two main effects of past class-size reduction have been more teachers and more expensive schools.
Education research is essentially unanimous: The effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom is far, far more important than how many students are in the classroom. But this is not the message that the union wants to hear, because it would involve evaluating teachers and making personnel decisions based on the quality of the work they do. (Emphasis added.)
Hanushek has done a lot of work in this area. In 1998, he released the results of his research that examined 227 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class size averages on student achievement. He found that 15 percent of the studies showed an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all and 13 percent found that reducing class size actually had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”
Other researchers have come up with similar findings. Also in 1998, Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found that “reductions in class size from a base of 15 to 30 students have no effect on student achievement.” Jay Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, writes that most of the evidence on which the “smaller-is-better” crowd relies on outcomes from Tennessee’s STAR project, an experiment conducted in the 1980s, with very questionable methodology.
In fact, the public has swallowed the class size myth for years and legislators have acted accordingly. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2010, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 16 to one. In California, going back to 2007, the student-teacher ratio was reduced to 21.6 pupils. Today, it has “ballooned” – to use the teachers unions’ favorite term – back up to about 24.
Frequently left out of the conversation is that when classes get smaller, more teachers are hired and the quality of the talent pool is diluted. Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews noted in a 2006 story how California had a decade earlier authorized a $650-per-pupil bonus to schools with kindergarten-to-third-grade classes of no more than 20 students. “This produced many more classes that required more teachers, many of whom, parents complained, were inexperienced and ineffective,” Mathews wrote. Is it possible that larger classes and fewer teachers might even be preferable? Yes, if the teachers let go are the weaker performers. As Hanushek argues: “If you … replaced five to eight percent of the worst teachers with an average teacher, U.S. achievement would rise to somewhere between Canada and Finland.” Though the teachers unions will have none of that getting-rid-of-bad-teachers stuff, ask any parent if they rather have their kid in a class of 21 with a mediocre or worse teacher or a class of 24 with a good or great teacher. No need to wait for an answer.
What about countries that are more successful at educating than we are? Do they have smaller classes? OECD shows that out of 34 countries, the US is slightly below average in class size. However, China, Korea, Germany and Japan all have considerably larger class sizes than we do, and regularly clobber us in student performance.
In the meantime, the small class myth lives on. Mulgrew is pushing his tax scheme in New York. In Los Angeles, new teacher union president Alex Caputo-Pearl pitched the small class mantra three separate times in his coronation speech. And on its “Local Bargaining Updates” page, the California Teacher Association reports that “smaller class size” is a top bargaining priority for union locals all over the state. Again, the unions couldn’t care less about teacher quality or accountability; it’s all about hiring more dues-payers.
It is truly incumbent upon the public, notably the taxpayer, to start fighting the class size myth. Chicken Little eventually got the message; it’s about time that the rest of us do too.
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.