The challenge of learning from others’ mistakes

by Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality

April 13, 2017

Dear State Legislator:

First let’s get the obvious points out of the way. I get that your constituents love small class sizes. Certainly, no rational teacher will tell you that large classes are easier to teach than small classes. And, unlike many education fixes, the benefits of smaller class sizes do not require lengthy explanations making the eyes glaze over. Everyone immediately understands—and applauds!

For these reasons, I’m not surprised that the North Carolina legislature has gotten itself into a real pickle over class size reductions, now having to figure out what to do with a well-intentioned but unworkable new law. That law, passed in the last session, requires school districts to lower K-3 class sizes from the current limit of 24 students to as few as 19.

With the law set to go into effect next fall, districts have announced that in order to comply with the new law that they will have to concurrently lay off art, music, and PE teachers—who, in addition to being wildly important to parents and kids, are the reason classroom teachers get a much needed break during the day to refuel and plan. Catch 22. Suddenly this very popular move isn’t looking so popular anymore.

It’s not my intention to single out the NC legislature here. There is no shortage of states that have gone down this road and lived to regret it, most dramatically California in 1996 and Florida in 2003. Those states were dumbfounded over the unintended—but entirely foreseeable—problems of their own creation as a result of top-down mandates. It started with the lack of empty classrooms available to accommodate new teachers, but more importantly, they learned that there is not a bottomless supply of teachers, especially good ones.

In other words, it turns out that students are better off in a crowded classroom that is led by a strong teacher than in a small class taught by a weak teacher.

Here’s an example in the extreme. My daughter lives on a farm in rural South Africa. She volunteers teaching English at the local public school, encountering class sizes that make a mockery of our class size debates. Classes in this remote Zulu school range from 75 to 100 students, with four children sitting in desks intended for two. Her first impression of this situation was immediate sympathy for the school’s well-meaning English teacher and what an impossible job she has.

But as she has spent more time in this classroom, she is more struck by how poorly, indeed incompetently, the teacher and her principal have chosen to deal with this tough situation—such as ignoring a closet full of new computers that could help them break the classroom into more manageable groups and failing to assess the students on their proficiency so that they might be re-organized, if only to teach each other—to name but two basic strategies that could be relatively easily put in place, but which have not been. It is no wonder that most of these 13-year-olds, who must learn English if they ever want a real job, have yet to learn to string together a sentence of English.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still no question that the class size here is a huge obstacle. But the bigger problem in this poor, rural school resides in the poor quality and training of the both the teacher and the principal who oversees her work. Neither is in a position to change the hand they’ve been dealt, but additional training and some ingenuity on the part of these adults could produce far better outcomes.

Every classroom has its challenges that must be overcome. While in the US, even the weakest teachers are likely to know to pull out the computers and find a way to group the kids, more complex and immediate instructional challenges are harder to anticipate, and certainly impossible to solve from on-high. And given my druthers—and I’d wager every parent’s—I’d rather that the person in front of the room can think fast on her feet and pivot on a dime, which is what well trained, skilled teachers know how to do.

When legislatures opine about smaller class sizes, I can’t help but think that the evidence isn’t getting a fair hearing, particularly the poor return on investment from a long history of states’ class size reduction initiatives. Says economist Rick Hanushek, “Perhaps the most astounding part of the current debates on class size reduction is the almost complete disregard for the history of such policies.”

I do know that the positive results from the Tennessee STAR class size reduction experiment routinely get trotted out in these debates, with one important fact routinely omitted. None of the STAR champions point out that it was a carefully constructed experiment involving only 11,000 students attending schools that had voluntarily signed-up to participate. The schools had the opportunity to decide it made sense for them to participate.

Buy-in, local context, and comprehensive planning all critically matter. Apparently, those are lessons that are best learned state by state, legislator by legislator, which is too bad for kids.