Class Size Wars

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

How do we ensure
poor students attain grade level proficiency? Increasingly,
policymakers are latching on to class-size reduction as a
cure-all, imbuing smaller classes with the power to eradicate
intractable achievement gaps. While shrinking class size can
be a good thing (after all, what parent wants their child in
larger classes with fewer teachers?), research suggests it’s
no quick fix for struggling schools.

But that’s not
stopping educators and lawmakers in North Carolina. Since
2000, the State Board of Education and the General Assembly
have implemented class-size reduction with little
effect on student performance. The Charlotte Mecklenburg
School Board has just jumped on board after reviewing the
2007-08 school budget, adding another 40 teachers to
high-poverty elementary schools.

If simply padding
teaching staff at low-performing or low-income schools isn’t
the answer, what is? For starters, we need to get back to
basics, reexamining the kinds of teachers we put
in the classroom. Rather than blithely ascribing to a
“strength in numbers” philosophy of education, we need to pay
more attention to teacher quality. Having more teachers doesn’t
make a school successful, but having good teachers assuredly

That said, there’s a lot we can do to maximize
teaching effectiveness and give low-income and struggling
schools the leg up they sorely need. A 2006 report from the Hamilton
proposes a system that would up-end current
conventions, instead weighting flexibility and teaching
effectiveness above teaching credentials. This makes good
sense – after all, efficacy in the classroom is generally
unrelated to teaching certification.

Specifically, the
report’s authors advocate a raft of changes to identify good
teachers: hiring more competent, but uncertified, instructors;
making it increasingly difficult for bad teachers to earn
tenure; providing bonuses to highly effective instructors at
disadvantaged schools; establishing evaluation systems to
measure teaching effectiveness; and implementing data systems
to track student performance and teaching effectiveness over
time – all steps in the right direction.

In addition
to ensuring teachers perform in the classroom, we need to make
certain they’re prepared when they first get there. According
to education researcher and analyst Kevin Carey, our country has a long history
of laxity when it comes to teacher preparation. Carey cites
the September 2006 report from the Commission of the Future of
Higher Education finding “a remarkable absence of
accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in
educating students.”

Since congressional passage in
1998 of the Higher Education Act, states have been required to
submit an annual list of low-performing teacher preparation
programs (determinations of performance levels are left up to
the state to decide). But 31 states have never identified a
single teacher preparation program as at-risk or low
performing. Carey concludes that state “accountability systems
deliberately circumvent the spirit of the law.” Obviously, our
teacher preparation programs could use an infusion of academic
rigor. That won’t come at the hands of more federal
regulations, however. But it will grow out of an education
ethos that demands highly trained teachers and rewards those
who produce in the classroom.

Clearly, we have work
still to do when it comes to preparing and utilizing our
teaching work force. But if we’re serious about closing
achievement gaps (and maximizing success for all students), we
already have a promising blueprint for reform. Here’s what
that might look like: freeing educational institutions from
mandates, relying on results (i.e. student achievement),
relaxing teacher certification requirements, and rewarding
highly effective instructors.

Policy debates over the
merits of class size reduction are sure to rage on. But they
won’t change the bottom line: success in the classroom hinges
on the effectiveness of the teacher, not the number of
students warming the seats.

Lindalyn Kakadelis is Director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.