Smaller classes: the wrong investment for city schools

By ROBERT GORDON  Newsday,  Thursday, December 13th 2007, 4:00 AM

Be Our Guest

The New York City Department of Education recently agreed to reduce class sizes at 75 middle and high schools under the state's "contract for excellence." Now, advocates at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are pushing the department to shrink classes even more at all grade levels.

It's time for advocates of student achievement to push back against the growing class size obsession.

Solid research out of Tennessee links careful class size reduction to higher achievement. But that's only up to third grade. The evidence for older kids is much weaker. In a paper featured by class size reduction advocates, Profs. Bruce Biddle and David Berliner say that "evidence for the possible advantages of small classes in the upper grades and high school is so far inconclusive."

McKinsey & Company, the consulting giant, concludes its study of achievement around the world with a harsher assessment: "The available evidence suggests that, except at the very early grades, class size reduction does not have much impact on student outcomes." And that's also the finding of an international review published by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution: "Class size is not a major determinant of student performance in lower secondary education." It's for good reason that, according to the Parthenon Group, only three of 33 states with class size reduction programs extend them up to high school.

These results make some sense. Young children with shorter attention spans need personal attention to connect with their teachers and focus on the work. Teenagers most need teachers who know their stuff and make it exciting. That can work even in a larger group.

With all the money in the world, of course we'd want to give small classes to everyone. But class size reduction costs a boatload. If our goal is to help more children to graduate high school, go to college and achieve their dreams, then placing a big bet on smaller classes for older students is the wrong way to go.

There's a better approach. In a new paper on North Carolina high schools, three Duke University researchers found that having a class with five fewer students had a "very small" effect on student performance. Having a class with a strong teacher, rather than a weak one, had an impact 14 times bigger.

To improve classroom teaching, hiring more math and science teachers who are experts in those subjects is a good idea. But, more than anything, we need to retain strong teachers and then either improve or replace new teachers who aren't getting results. A 99% tenure rate for teachers who stick around three years just doesn't make sense. In research by Harvard's Tom Kane, Dartmouth's Doug Staiger and me, the gap between the strongest and weakest teachers proved bigger than the difference between large and small classes even in elementary grades.

To its credit, the city is already taking some smart steps. Its small "lead teacher" program and its new performance pay initiative, both developed with the United Federation of Teachers, will provide bigger paychecks and new career paths to successful teachers in poor schools. That will give those teachers new reasons to stay in the Bronx and Brooklyn rather than move out to Westchester or Long Island. At the same time, the city's key initiative to raise the bar for tenure should make it less likely that ineffective teachers will spend decades in front of your child's classes.

These efforts deserve the funding and focus that class size reduction now draws. In a world where money doesn't grow on trees, we will never improve student achievement until we have the courage to pursue the most promising approaches, not the most popular ones. Adults love the idea of more teachers. Kids, especially teenagers, need good ones.

Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He worked at the city's Department of Education until July and still serves as an adviser to the department.