The perennial, “We have a teacher shortage!” canard has a younger and equally bogus sibling known as, “Children do better in a small class setting!” In fact, lower class size is very often on the list of demands when teachers go out on strike. Most recently educators in Columbus, OH, Mahomet, IL, and Seattle, WA struck, and smaller classes were part of the negotiating package in each district.
The Seattle strike, which locked students out for a week, also had the teachers union insisting on more mental health and social workers, and their demands were met. Looking at the big picture, we see that compared to 2013-2014, the school district now has 1,725 fewer students, but 1,711 more employees. At this time, there are 7,010 employees for the district’s 48,784 students.
Nationally, class size has been shrinking over time. Since 1921, the student-to-teacher ratio has been reduced from 33:1 to 16:1.
Other data showing the efficacy of the class-size hawks comes from Benjamin Scafidi, who in 2017 released the results of a study on the “staffing surge” in public education. The researcher and economics professor found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers in the U.S. increased about 2.5 times faster than the uptick in students. Even more stunning is the fact that the hiring of other education employees – administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc. – rose more than 7 times the increase in students.
Using a narrower time frame, Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, adds that between 2008 and 2016, student enrollment was flat, but the teaching force grew from 3.4 million to over 3.8 million, a 12.4% bump. Also, during that time period, “the number of vice principals and assistant principals grew by 8.3 percent. Instructional coordinators and curriculum specialists increased by 10.5 percent, and there was between 5 and 12 percent growth in the number of nurses, psychologists, speech therapists, and special education aides.”
Then, just a few weeks ago, Chad Alderman, Policy Director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, noted that all but three states lowered student-teacher ratios during the Covid pandemic. Alderman adds that staffing levels hit all-time highs in 2020-2021, with the typical public school district employing 135 people for every 1,000 students it served.
So what has all this class size shrinkage done for students?
An extensive analysis on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, and found that 15% of the studies did show an improvement in achievement, while 72% found no effect at all, and 13% found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”
In 2018, a meta-analysis released by Danish researchers reported that 127 studies have been done on small class size in 41 different countries, and found at best the evidence suggests a small effect on reading achievement, but at the same time a negative, but statistically insignificant, effect on mathematics.
So the question becomes, “Why wouldn’t class size matter?” It’s primarily because when class sizes shrink, more classes are needed, and more teachers are hired to teach them. Assuming that the added teachers are of average capabilities, it would lower teacher quality if the existing teachers were talented. And this gets to the heart of the matter. When the teacher pool is increased, you get more bodies in the classroom. Not more talented bodies. Just bodies.
Imagine if a Major League All-Star Game roster was increased to 70 players from the current 35, you would certainly see a diminution in quality. The same is true in education.
The Jaime Escalante case is instructive. Probably the most acclaimed teacher of our time, his calculus class was extremely popular at Garfield High in East Los Angeles. In 1983, the number of his students passing the A.P. calculus test more than doubled. That year 33 students took the exam and 30 of them passed.
Going well beyond the 35-student limit set by the teacher union contract, some of his classes had more than 50 supposedly “unteachable” students, and the teachers union complained. Rather than submit to the union, Escalante moved on to teach elsewhere. In just a few years after his departure, the number of AP calculus students at Garfield who passed their exams dropped by more than 80%.
Which brings us to the chief villain. It should not come as a surprise that the prime evangelists for smaller class sizes are the teachers unions, whose bosses insist that they want a lower student-teacher ratio because it helps “the children.” This is rubbish. The unions want smaller class sizes because hiring more dues-paying teachers increases their bottom line. The result is that teachers become blindly interchangeable, which is a terrible thing to do to children, and highly unfair to good teachers.
All this is well documented in “The Widget Effect,” a report released in 2009 by The New Teacher Project which found that effective teachers are the key to student success, “yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals.”
The researchers explain that just about all public school teachers “are rated good or great,” and “poor performance goes unaddressed.” Half of the districts studied had not “dismissed a single tenured teacher for poor performance in the past five years.” Additionally, low expectations for beginning teachers “translate into benign neglect in the classroom and a toothless tenure process.” Less than 1% of all teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, making it impossible to identify truly exceptional ones.
And on the subject of tenure – or as more accurately “permanence” – throughout most of the country, it is just about impossible to fire a teacher. In California, for example, permanence is attained after just two years on the job, and on average, just 2.2 of the state’s 300,000 “permanent” teachers (0.0008%) are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance in any given year.
As a teacher, I liked small classes. Why wouldn’t I? There were fewer papers to grade, report cards to fill out, and parents to deal with. In other words, small class size made life easier for me. But I never deluded myself into thinking that my students were getting a superior education when I was teaching 15 or 20 instead of 25 of them. It is true that there are a few exceptions like certain special education classes where the kids need more individual attention. But, by and large, the smaller-is-better meme is baloney. Like everywhere else in life, in teaching, quality trumps quantity.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.