Despite moderator Bob Schieffer’s wrongheaded assertion that education isn’t a foreign policy issue, class size emerged as a flash point at Monday night’s debate. President Obama boasted about his administration’s record on saving teaching positions and spoke about his plan to hire more math and science educators in particular, which he argued would help American students compete with their international peers for high-skill jobs.
“Now, Governor Romney, when you were asked by teachers whether or not this would help the economy grow, you said, this isn’t going to help the economy grow,” Obama said. “When you were asked about reduced class sizes, you said class sizes don’t make a difference. But I tell you, if you talk to teachers, they will tell you it does make a difference.”
Romney certainly has a record of claiming smaller class sizes don’t help students learn. But what Obama didn’t say is that while it’s true his stimulus funding saved hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs, his own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, has also spoken favorably about larger class sizes. On March 3, 2011 I asked Duncan about proposed teacher layoffs in New York City. He demurred on the specifics of the negotiations between Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the teachers’ union, but then echoed rhetoric in favor of larger classes often deployed by Bloomberg and other national school reformers, like Bill Gates.
“Class size has been a sacred cow and we need to take it on,” Duncan told me. He proposed paying proven teachers $20,000 to $25,000 more annually if they agree to teach five additional students. In an acknowledgement that surveys show large class sizes are unpopular with the public, Duncan added that parents should have the choice of whether to place their children in such classes, but said he’d rather his own children were taught by an effective teacher in a larger class than an ineffective teacher in a smaller one. “It's provocative,” he admitted, “but we're talking about selectively raising class sizes amongst your greatest talent."
Duncan has made similar comments in public speeches, most notably in a talk about education budgets called, “The New Normal: Doing More With Less,” which he delivered at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in November 2010.
While it’s clear both Democrats and Republicans have floated the idea of larger class sizes in recent years, it’s less clear what the impact of class size is on student achievement. Common sense suggests crisis class sizes of 50 or 60 students, which were seen at the depth of the recession in Detroit and some California cities, are much too large, leading even the most skilled teachers to become overwhelmed and unable to focus on individual students’ needs. Those situations are most likely to occur in school districts with high-poverty student populations, though some research suggests poor and minority children benefit most from smaller classes.
Where the class size debate gets really complex is when you look at more typical class sizes; for example, the difference between a 25 and 30-student class. In 1985, the Tennessee STAR project randomly assigned a few thousand elementary school students to very small classes of between 13 and 17 children. A number of studies showed students in those classes had higher academic achievement than peers in larger classes, and were more likely to graduate high school. Partly in response, states like California, Florida, and North Carolina launched efforts to reduce average class sizes, but because of budget limitations, few districts have been able to lower class sizes to the extent the research literature suggests is ideal—by at least six to eight students.
Internationally, the United States has larger than average class sizes, but a few of the nations with even bigger classes than ours, such as Korea, Japan, and Australia, clearly out-perform us academically—as do several countries, like Finland and Canada, that have made small classes a priority.
For policy wonks, the mixed evidence on class size can induce whiplash. But parents aren’t confused—they love the idea of their kids getting more personal attention in smaller classes, which is one reason why, nationwide, private schools have an average of 19.4 students per class, compared to 23.6 students in public schools. Whenever I write about this topic, I also get impassioned feedback from teachers. One Washington, D.C. public school educator told me her ideal class size would be 16 students.
“Class size is tied with improving teacher education as the number one issue in education today,” she said. “Really good teaching is differentiated teaching—meeting each and every kid where they are and raising their level of work bit by bit, day by day. Only by knowing each kid, conferencing with each kid and providing instruction to each kid how he or she best learns can we honestly close the achievement gap. We cannot do this with 26 second graders and only one teacher. It is impossible.”