Smaller classes: the wrong investment for city schools
By ROBERT GORDON Newsday, Thursday, December 13th 2007, 4:00 AM
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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
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
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.