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Sizing Up the Problem 

H.L. Mencken once said, "For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." As education reform becomes a topic of increasing concern -- last week, UNO released a poll showing that 25 percent of local voters believe schools are our most pressing problem -- we should heed this warning. When it comes to educating the minds of our next generation, nothing is simple.

It is, however, political. In 1998, the Clinton administration launched its major education reform: the federal Class Size Reduction Program, which stressed reducing classroom sizes. The current Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act drops the focus on class size. Instead, it mandates that every classroom have a "highly qualified teacher" by the year 2006. Expect education to become a hot issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign as well.

Some education reformers are already involved in a tug-o-war between class sizes and teacher quality. In January, the Louisiana Department of Education unveiled new research that it said showed teacher quality is more important than class size. But the study is flawed. The state only analyzed one year's data and it failed to account for class sizes that already directly result from student performance. For example, it skewed its data by including smaller classes designed for disruptive kids. Clearly, this study should not be the moving force behind public policy.

All the same, the push for more qualified teachers is both crucial and overdue. Children who most desperately need good teachers are also the least likely to get them. Today, a student at one of this state's lower-performing schools has a 1 in 5 chance of having an uncertified teacher. For a student at a high-performing school, the odds go down to 1 in 20. Statewide, one-seventh of our teachers are uncertified. Louisiana is now under pressure to change this, given the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Without doubt, every classroom needs a certified, experienced teacher, teaching within his or her subject area. (Studies show that most teachers need to spend about five years in the classroom before they're fully effective.) One way to attract and retain good teachers is to raise salaries. But schools also need to improve the teaching environment. Smaller class sizes are essential to improving the environment for teachers and students alike.

How did we arrive at this current debate? Supply and demand, as well as inequitable distribution of resources. Historically, as schools reduced class sizes, they hired more teachers. Because of the nationwide teacher shortage, schools with higher pay and better working conditions could attract the most experienced, certified teachers. (A literal sign of this continuing trend can be seen on Interstate 10 near the Clearview exit, where a "$40K a State Away" billboard entices teachers to Houston, Texas.) In poorer districts, schools hired from a shrinking pool and turned to uncertified teachers.

Meanwhile, comprehensive reports on classroom size -- such as the Economic Policy Institute's 2002 study The Class Size Debate (available online at www.epinet.org/books/class_size_debate.html) show that class size and teacher quality are inextricably linked. "They aren't separate issues," stresses EPI senior researcher Anne Heald. Simply put, if quality teachers feel they can't make a difference in their students' lives, they leave the school -- or the profession. And research shows that teachers in smaller classes spend more time teaching and less time disciplining. As one class-size proponent puts it, leading big classes feels more like crowd control than teaching.

Smaller class sizes are even more critical in lower grades. Small classes allow teachers to know their students well enough to determine if learning disabilities or poor vision are hampering a child's ability to learn. If correctable problems such as these aren't caught early, they lead to lower performances or discipline problems later on. Furthermore, many children are not identified with reading problems until they reach third or fourth grade -- by which time they lag far behind.

Young children don't enter school on equal footing. The best indicators of a child's academic success are non-school factors such as parental education and family income. But as things stand, too many schools magnify -- rather than correct -- these inequalities. The least privileged kids are too often stuck with the most uncertified, least experienced teachers in the largest and most chaotic classrooms.

Louisiana's class sizes -- 33 in the upper grades and 27 in grades K through 3 -- are too high. Most research shows that lower grades should be capped at 15 to 17, and upper grades in the low 20s. But the number of uncertified teachers is also too high. In the current fiscal climate, Louisiana and other states are faced with tough choices. Some states are now structuring larger studies of class size and teacher quality; this is sorely needed here. As public attention turns to the condition of our schools, we shouldn't hide behind flimsy research or engage in partisan rhetoric. Instead, we need to make informed choices about what's truly best for our children. Our solutions won't be simple or neat -- and we can't afford to be wrong.

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