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Smaller Classes Don't Mean Better Teaching

In these difficult budget times, preserving teacher jobs and smaller class sizes remains as a high-priority education strategy. Yet Colorado can better maximize outputs by promoting practical changes at the classroom level.

Research repeatedly tells us that large-scale class size reduction programs bring very little or no bang for a lot of education bucks.

The most recent example is a study of Florida’s 2002 Class Size Amendment that shows no student advantage in implementing smaller class sizes. By the same token, when financial pressures grow class sizes by small numbers, it would not entail educational disaster.

The consistently repeated strategy for public education has been to increase spending and reduce class size. Since 1970, the national student-teacher ratio has dropped by one-third, with mostly flat achievement results and a few modest improvements. In some states, recent teacher layoffs — often overstated in media reports — represent modest corrections to unjustifiable hiring binges made in the past decade.

Interestingly, Colorado is one of only 10 states in which teacher hiring rates have not met or exceeded student enrollment growth over the past seven years. The class-size obsession hasn’t overtaken us to the extent it has some other states.

But given economic realities, slightly larger classes provide opportunities to place the dominant focus on enhancing school productivity without adding excessive burdens to teachers.

Current budget challenges faced by many Colorado school districts prompt some telling responses. First, the predictable calls for higher taxes and more K-12 education spending ignore the repeated observation that more money cannot cure what ails the system. Besides, political and economic realities make the prospects even bleaker in the near future.

Second, some opponents of tax and spending increases look at district budgets and wonder why more administrative overhead cannot be cut before classrooms are affected. To some extent, they have a point. Yet teacher layoffs often cannot be avoided.

Collectively bargained policies tend to ensure more classroom instructors get sacked, because less senior teachers with smaller salaries hit the chopping block first.

Fortunately, with this year’s passage of Senate Bill 191, Colorado has taken a modest but fundamental shift toward evaluating and retaining teachers based on objective measures of performance. As the bill is slowly implemented, a question lingers: Can Colorado really move the needle ahead on teacher quality during a time when many class sizes and workloads have grown?

Promising, cost-effective opportunities remain to be implemented. Research strongly suggests a simple way to boost teacher effectiveness. Teachers can learn practical skills and mechanics from their peers who have achieved remarkable success in the classroom.

Through separate research, former teachers Doug Lemov and Steven Farr seek to disseminate practical strategies that work. They show the successful use of certain practices leads to better use of time and improved learning outcomes.

For example, Lemov explains how a technique for handing back student papers over the course of a school year can save hours to be used for learning important subjects. They also share techniques that improve student engagement and how instruction is delivered.

Unfortunately, most traditional education programs that train and license teachers are behind the curve on this research.

Lemov and Farr are really onto something: A vital way to enhance the productivity of our schools is working to ensure far more of our teachers can learn and adopt valuable classroom techniques. While other innovations in efficiency remain to be researched and developed, this one is ripe for the picking.

Maybe it can help cure the class-size obsession while it helps students learn more.

Ben DeGrow is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily on July 25, 2010.