Friday, May 27, 2011

Increase class size while improving student achievement - it can be done

Eric Hanushek writes that if schools were allowed to lay off teachers based on effectiveness instead of based on LIFO (seniority rules mandated by New York State) they would be able to save money by increasing class sizes while improving student achievement levels.  Maybe it IS true that schools can "do more with less" and that a "leaner school system might just be a better one".
The economic downturn across the country has a lot of people talking about class size reduction. By and large, people are saying bigger classes would be a calamity for public schools. These discussions, while ever-tinged by politics, ignore both basic facts and research evidence....
This situation has led to hysterical news media coverage about enormous classes and testimonials about how it has simply become impossible to teach with so many students in one class. It has also prompted the class size reduction lobbyists to quote back their evidence with the twist of how this is the worst thing that could happen to schools....
But increasing class size means that some current teachers must be laid off, and here the schools have an advantage. They know how effective their teachers are, so they are not forced to lay off an average teacher. They can in fact lay off below average teachers.
When budget shortfalls necessitate reductions in force, laying off the weakest teachers would lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement. As I have described elsewhere, replacing the worst 5-8 percent of our teachers with average teachers would be expected to move student outcomes near to if not at the top of the international league tables for math and science performance. And this would have enormous benefits for the U.S. economy and for the students who now have greater skills when they enter the labor force.
But wouldn't the increased class sizes offset any gains? In simplest terms, no. The evidence has been rehashed many times. The latest Brookings study, for example, concludes once again that the small class size increases from the current fiscal pressures would be virtually undetectable. Part of the confusion over the outcomes arises from the unwillingness or inability of schools to make decisions based on the effectiveness of teachers. By applying last in, first out rules (LIFO for short) to any dismissals, schools almost completely eliminate the chance to improve the learning for our children. When you use seniority as the determining factor in layoffs, you let some of your best teachers go. And, because their salaries are lowest, you have to lay off a greater number of new teachers (as opposed to more senior teachers).


  1. But they won't lay off the least effective teachers. They will lay off the most expensive teachers, because that will limit the number laid off. Remember, administrators care more about getting warm bodies in front of classrooms than anything else. The teachers that will be laid off will be the math specialists (who command higher salaries) and the senior teachers. I know there is a lot of bias against older teachers right now, which strikes me as ageism pure and simple - very similar to the attitudes in the high tech world. And what happened in the high tech world? Americans no longer go into the field because they can't see a long term career in it. I think the same thing will happen in teaching if administrations are able to lay off senior teachers in preference to junior teachers.

  2. Well, this would be predicated on administrators acting responsibly.

    I would guess that almost all principals know who their "stinkers" are, those teachers who clearly should be booted. I think they would be motivated to get rid of these teachers because the principals would reap the benefits. That is, if they were evaluated based on student achievement. So, they might be persuaded to do this rather than prioritize getting "warm bodies in the classrooms".

  3. While principals know who their total incompetents are, I suspect there aren't a lot of those people, especially in districts like ours. I bet the principals have no way of differentiating between the next levels of teachers, the mediocre, the pretty good, and the stellar. I say that because it is true in many professions - managers are never able to tell how good their employees are.

    I know that one could simply use test scores, but given the abundant research on the inappropriateness of tests for personnel decisions, and the unpopularity of testing with parents, I think that would be a hard sell. What happens when Mrs X, who does lots of "enrichment" with glitzy projects and entertainin activities that the kids and parents love, turns out to have terrible test scores? Parents don't really buy into the test scores anyway, so they would scream if Mrs X was laid off. (and I have a certain 5th grade teacher in mind when I am thinking of this example)

  4. Interesting.

    Even in a "good" school district, the almost total incompetent group could well be 5-10% of the total, based on my observations.

  5. I have been thinking to myself for a while now that this whole "class size" obsession is an urban myth perpetuated by teachers unions and school administrators. It's the same people who foster that "our side is about the children" line (which, btw, I am determined to hijack, because I'm about "the children" too).

    It is probably a valid fear that they might lay off good teachers and keep the bad ones -- but that's just more manipulation by the same people mentioned above. I wish more educators would be brave enough to just DO THE RIGHT THING and risk losing the approval of the masses who don't necessarily have all the facts. Be brave! I think that consensus and extraordinary might be mutually exclusive.

    I can tell you that both of my kids are in schools with class sizes bigger than those in the public schools where I live, and I don't see a difference because of that.

    My memory of being a student is that a great teacher was was way more important than the class size. I recall GREAT classes in big lecture halls, and miserable classes in small rooms.

  6. I was reminded of your post when I saw this article

  7. No doubt, parents are in love with the idea of smaller class sizes. It's an appealing concept, that your child will receive more personalized attention. But smaller class sizes do not consistently correlate with higher achievement levels.

    I can't ignore the fact that smaller class sizes lead to more employment of teachers who receive their credentials from education schools that have an agenda to produce more jobs for their graduates. For the children?

  8. Loved that article, very thought provoking. Not sure how it's related, but I just saw this:

    U.S. Adults Estimate That 25% of Americans Are Gay or Lesbian

    The actual number is about 3.5%. Is the wildly incorrect estimate affected by the "social influence effect"? I'm going to ask my kids what percentage they would estimate.

  9. "40%, including bi's" Too much TV, probably.

  10. I've only encountered 1 teacher so far that I would have called incompetent, M's first grade teacher. But she was still far better than the total incompetents I had as a child in very underfunded Texas and Ky school districts. I know some parents liked her, too, so I would bet that the administration wouldn't have seen her as incompetent. E has had stellar teachers all the way through.

  11. I also do not care for M's current teacher, because I don't like her teaching methods (total chaos, throw project after project out there and see what sticks). But that isn't the same thing as incompetence. In fact, I think most of the other parents, and the administration, think she is an excellent teacher.

  12. I'm glad your kids have had such good teachers. My kids have had some good and even great ones, IMO.