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Sizing Up Classrooms 

What's behind new research from the Louisiana Department of Education about class size and student performance? Politics and inadequate data, say some critics.

Classroom teaching means quick stepping. Or so Brenda Mitchell discovered when she began teaching in Orleans Parish in 1968. "I knew that I couldn't wear heels," she recalls. "I had to have flat shoes on, for the sheer fact that I had to move around 48 kids in the classroom."

Today, almost no teacher faces that many students at one time. According to current Louisiana law, no class is supposed to exceed 33 children. These lower class sizes are part of a nationwide trend, fueled both by city and state initiatives and by the federal Class Size Reduction Program, which provided $1.2 billion in annual funding starting in 1998.

But this year, as most states and cities confront severe budget shortfalls, some people are questioning whether class-size reduction is a cost-effective way of improving student performance. The topic is being raised anew in Louisiana as a result of a state Department of Education analysis, which found that "teacher quality" was related to school-district performance much more than class size.

"Teacher quality overrides class size," concludes Leslie Jacobs, a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), which requested this analysis. But some teachers and parents, education researchers and administrators aren't so sure.

Debate about class size can be prickly. Politics plays its role -- the Clinton administration initiated the Class Size Reduction Program, while the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act mandates that every classroom have a "highly qualified teacher" by the year 2006. Also, the Louisiana Department of Education released its analysis during a time of heightened nerves for public-school advocates, because it was closely followed by Gov. Mike Foster's advocacy of a statewide voucher system -- a system that BESE officially opposes.

The debate about class size also follows years of distrust between the state's administrators and local districts, especially in Orleans Parish where, says Mitchell, "we're the last people they ask." Mitchell, now president of the local teachers' union, United Teachers of New Orleans, says she applauds moves toward more qualified, certified teachers. But, she says, that needn't come at the expense of class size.

Leslie Jacobs believes that smaller class sizes might be effective in certain, more limited circumstances. But she is convinced that the advantages of class size have been "blown out of proportion," and that they come at the expense of more certified teachers. Jacobs, a local insurance broker and main proponent of the LEAP-test system, was appointed to the BESE board by Foster. Recently, she explains, BESE asked the department of education to take existing 2001 data and determine how school-district performance scores are affected by 72 different variables.

The results were clear, says Jacobs. Class size barely showed up. "The number-one variable was teacher quality," says Jacobs. "Not class size, not teacher pay. Teacher quality is number one."

Anne Heald isn't convinced. Heald is a senior researcher with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which last year published The Class Size Debate, an in-depth discussion between a proponent and a critic of smaller class size. Heald says she is familiar with education efforts in Louisiana, a state she says is recognized on a national level for being "very far behind but trying very hard."

Recently, Heald has been poring through teacher-quality research for a paper that will be released by EPI next month. That research shows, she says, that class size and teacher quality go hand in hand. "The names may sound like they separate neatly," she says. "They don't. They aren't separate issues."

Jean Krieger keeps a small picture in her office -- an image of a desk with an apple on top. The text reads "All we need is a little class."

Krieger is now principal at Woodlake Elementary School in Mandeville and an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans (UNO). Several years ago, for her doctoral dissertation from UNO, she looked at class size and its impact on classroom behavior.

First, Krieger asked principals to recommend effective teachers who had classes of 18 or less and of 25 or more. She wanted to observe how good teachers dealt with different-size classes. The larger classes -- 25 or more -- were chosen because, for kindergarten through third grade, the state of Louisiana funds schools at a class size of 26. (For grades 4 through 12, it funds at a class size of 33.)

Krieger went into these classrooms and made 52 videotapes, about 30 to 45 minutes each. She studied the tapes and analyzed the activity she saw. "There was a major difference between the small and larger classes," she says. "When there were 16 kids, the children were more engaged -- they were 'on task.'" But in the larger classes, there was much more talk about negative behavior. "There were many more reminders," she says, "things like 'you know we don't go to the pencil sharpener now.'"

From her research and first-hand observation in schools, Krieger is a staunch believer in small class size. "I'm sold on it," she says.

Orleans Parish teacher Jim Randels agrees. He's co-director of Students at the Center, a special program in 10 schools that receives outside funding to reduce class size. "One of the keys to reaching students is connecting rigorous academic content with the lives they lead," says Randels. He finds that this connection can only be made in small classes.

For example, Randels' students at Frederick Douglass Senior High School, officially known as a low-performing school, are reading a section from Plato's Republic. "When we talk about the allegory of the cave," he explains, "we talk about how people who understand the larger truth have to enter back into the cave and free others. Our students live that very seriously." Which is why, he notes, those students are now teaching reading to 20 younger kids in a neighborhood elementary school.

Randels has spent 17 years in the classroom and is a dissertation short of a doctorate in curriculum and education from UNO. By most any measure, he's a good, highly certified teacher. But in the late 1980s, he decided that he couldn't effectively teach 150 students a day. So he found a lucrative summer job and for several years dropped his teaching to part-time. It's not only classroom hours that matter, he says, it's preparation and assignment-reading time. "On average," he estimates, "I spend a couple of hours outside of school for every hour in class."

Each time she travels westbound on I-10, Leslie Jacobs wants to get out of her car and tear down a billboard near the Clearview exit. It lists the phone number for a school district in Texas, in an effort to lure away Louisiana's certified teachers. "40k a state away," it reads in big letters.

Brenda Mitchell has seen the sign too. Surrounding states are snatching up newly graduated teachers from Louisiana's colleges, she says. "We [in Orleans Parish] have only 10 teachers that are 22 years old. Ten. We're not getting them in here. Why would a person want to come here for $27,000?" she asks.

Many of the teachers who are hired here leave quickly, Mitchell says, seduced by bigger salaries in nearby states such as Georgia and Texas. "There are apartment complexes in Houston and Dallas where teachers from New Orleans live," she says. "Texas pays them money to move."

Jacobs says that part of the problem is that neighboring states experienced boom years and higher salaries during the past decade. Louisiana did not. She says that the effect of smaller class sizes is not one variable, it's three. "It's class size, percent of certified and uncertified teachers, and teacher pay." Because, she says, as districts have reduced their class sizes, they've needed to hire more teachers. But because there is a limited number of certified teachers coming into Louisiana schools, districts have found themselves hiring more and more uncertified teachers, she says.

This situation is particularly daunting in the face of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. "We know the data," says Jacobs. "We know that in Louisiana one in seven are not certified and overwhelmingly they're serving poor minority kids."

In Orleans Parish schools, students have a one in five chance of getting an uncertified teacher. Contrast that with the average statistic from a high-performing school, where a student has only a 1 in 20 chance of having an uncertified teacher, says Jacobs. Certified teachers are moving to wealthier, often suburban districts, where the pay is higher and the working conditions better.

"Pay can matter," says EPI's Anne Heald, but it's not everything. "If you look at research done by Gallup or Scholastic, teachers overwhelmingly go into the profession because they want to make a difference in children's lives."

Most researchers agree that teachers need to spend about five years in the classroom before they really start to know what they're doing, Heald says. So schools need to concentrate on keeping the teachers they have -- which means re-examining long-standing school policies. "One of the things that teachers say most about why they leave is the tough working conditions. It's very typical that a rookie teacher is given the large class sizes with the toughest kids. Which is not a way to lure or keep good people in the profession.

"The research evidence is really clear," says Heald. "In the tough classrooms where kids have the biggest learning challenges, the higher-score teachers turn over the fastest. So if you're spending your state dollars to get 'smarter,' more highly qualified teachers, they stay less long if you don't provide them with a range of supports." It's worth noting, she says, that one of those supports is smaller class size.

The symposium has a lengthy but to-the-point title: "School Improvement Should Rely on Reliable, Scientific Evidence. [So] Why Did 'No Child Left Behind' Leave Class Size Behind?"

This past Sunday, Woodlake's Jean Krieger participated in the symposium at the American Association of School Administrators convention here in New Orleans. One of Krieger's co-presenters was the man who named the symposium, Charles Achilles, a professor at Eastern Michigan and Seton Hall universities who for decades has studied class size.

Achilles is precise about research and would like the rest of the world to be, too. His Web site (www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/EPRU/bios/achilles.htm) includes cordial, highly detailed letters written to senators and media figures who have, to his mind, misrepresented education research. A few weeks ago, he called up Bobby Franklin, director of the state Department of Education's Division of Planning, Analysis, and Information Resources, to discuss the state analysis.

Achilles believes the study used faulty class-size numbers. His chief complaint is that Franklin didn't properly filter out certain small classes -- one-hour computer labs and pullout classes, and special education and gifted-and-talented classes. Franklin defends his analysis. "It's probably not as pure as Chuck [Achilles] would like it, but it is class size," he says.

Among education experts, Charles Achilles is best known as one of the four principal investigators of a landmark class-size experiment, Tennessee's Project STAR, which started tracking students in 1985 and continues to follow them today. Project STAR was set up to measure the effects of small class size, by using Tennessee schools as its laboratory and 11,600 students as its lab mice. ("We got permission to experiment with people's kids," notes Achilles.) Students were assigned randomly to one of three settings--typical classrooms, typical classrooms with a teacher's aide, and to small classrooms with 13 to 17 students.

"Briefly stated, small-class youngsters outperformed the pupils from larger classes each year on all tests, grades K through 3," Achilles says. He also notes "a residual effect" -- students who were in small classes in those early grades have continued to outperform their large-class peers. The long-term differences were particularly pronounced for poor and minority students. "Kids did better in everything," says Achilles. "Everybody only looks at test scores." Students from smaller classes also had lower dropout rates and better behavior, he says.

This makes sense, says Achilles, because -- like Krieger observed in her videos -- small classes are able to spend more time "on-task." That's why, he maintains, class sizes in Louisiana and elsewhere are still too big. "If you have 33 kids, it's crowd control, not teaching," he says.

Smaller classes are especially important in early grades, because kids are still learning how school works -- it's on-the-job-training of a sort, he explains. "Imagine that you're four or five and you've just started a new job -- going to school," he says. "And you're brought into the school and told, 'sink or swim, little devil.'"

In larger classes, Krieger explains, teachers can't learn what makes each kid tick. In those classes, teachers may not catch special behavior needs or learning disabilities. Hearing, vision and other physical problems are less likely to be discovered, which might lead to underachieving and "troublesome" students, says Achilles. "Look in a classroom and you will see fewer minority males wearing glasses -- they're less likely to get their eyes tested," says Achilles. "But you have to be able to see to read."

The STAR experiment, because of its breadth and its clear conclusions, is often credited for the recent class-size-reduction movement and the Clinton-era class-size legislation. Yet -- as Sunday's symposium discussed --the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act has moved away from that focus on class size. Achilles says that part of the problem with this new emphasis is that no one really knows what the term "teacher quality" means.

"Common sense says you want a good teacher," he says. "I'm arguing that they don't have any research to tell me what a good teacher is."

BESE's request for classroom analysis was prompted largely by the No Child Left Behind stipulation that certain student "subgroups" must show progress each year. The Louisiana analysis is divided into white and black students and by free-reduced-lunch or paid-lunch status.

Bobby Franklin explains his research model set out to understand why different school districts performed differently. While class size and teacher quality have gotten all the attention, his analysis showed other factors coming up first. In fact, race, poverty, and third-grade reading scores explained 87 percent of the differences between school-district performance, he says. The remaining differences could be explained by factors related to teachers -- specifically their test scores and certification.

"This doesn't mean they cause those differences," Franklin emphasizes. "It means they're related to it." Cause and effect can only be determined by experiments like Project STAR, he says.

Franklin says that his study "is not something I'd hang my hat on alone." But it is conclusive, he says, because its results are bolstered by existing research. For example, he cites some of the STAR study's results, which, he says, noted that "good teachers over multiple years have a positive effect and bad teachers over multiple years have a negative effect."

The STAR study was focused primarily on class size, says Franklin, but he doesn't believe that those class-size conclusions apply to Louisiana schools. "Tennessee has different demographics than Louisiana," he says.

"That's ridiculous," says Economic Policy Institute president Lawrence Mishel, who edited EPI's class-size book. Mishel agrees that teacher quality is extremely important, but he says he would not make that assumption -- or any other -- based on Louisiana's current analysis, which he says is flimsy compared to decades of very sophisticated research on class size. "Whatever the state department of education did, based on one year's district data," he says, "should not carry much weight with anyone."

Franklin maintains that his conclusions are strong enough to influence policy about class size. "I'd say that they need to look at highly qualified teachers," he says, "and then they might be able to get away with a higher class size."

Charles Achilles disagrees. But he does see some positive news within Franklin's research. "The most important thing in Bobby's study was what we've already known -- poverty followed by race. They're very highly correlated in your state and across the country."

This means, Achilles says, we can agree on some things -- and the advantages of small class sizes should be one of them. "So let's quit arguing and get to work," he says.

click to enlarge EILEEN LOH HARRIST
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