That class size should be small is revered like an article of faith in this country. Its adherents include parents, education groups, politicians and, of course, the unions whose ranks it swells. In many states it is even required by law, which has lead to millions of dollars in fines against schools in Florida and a lawsuit against New York City by its teachers union.
Yet small class size is neither a guarantor nor a prerequisite of educational excellence.
The worst public elementary school in Manhattan, 16 percent of whose students read at grade level, has an average class size of 21; PS 130, one of the city’s best, has an average class size of 30. Small class size is one factor in academic success. The question, then, is whether the educational benefits of class-size reduction justify the costs.
Some proponents contend that because research shows reducing class size is beneficial, spending on this should be prioritized over anything that is unsupported by research. That’s a neat rhetorical trick but unsound logic. The absence of research on, say, teacher salaries doesn’t prove that we should pay the minimum wage to teachers to dramatically reduce class size. Research should guide spending decisions only if it measures the benefits per dollar of spending on all alternatives.
At Harlem Success Academy Charter School, where we’ve gotten some of the best results in New York City, some classes are comparatively large because we believe our money is better spent elsewhere. In fifth grade, for example, every student gets a laptop and a Kindle with immediate access to an essentially unlimited supply of e-books. Every classroom has a Smart Board, a modern blackboard that is a touch-screen computer with high-speed Internet access. Every teacher has a laptop, video camera, access to a catalogue of lesson plans and videotaped lessons.
Outfitting a classroom this way costs about $40,000, or $13,500 amortized over three years. That’s how much New York charter schools receive per pupil annually, so we can afford this by just increasing class size by a single student.
Add just one more student per class schoolwide, and Harlem Success Academy I gets another $300,000 in total. With that, we can afford headhunters to find the best principals in the country, business managers to handle the non-instructional administration that would otherwise distract these great principals from driving high-quality instruction, ample professional development for teachers, museum trips for students, etc.
In other words, a 19th-century school can be transformed into a well-managed 21st-century school by adding just two students per classroom. Reducing class size is expensive because most costs vary with class size. Decrease a class from 25 to 24 students and you need to hire 4 percent more teachers as well as build and maintain 4 percent more buildings.
Obsession with class size is causing many public schools to look like relics. We spend so much to employ lots of teachers that there isn’t enough left to help these teachers be effective. According to the city’s education department, New York public schools spend on average less than 3 percent of their budgets on instructional supplies and equipment (1 percent), textbooks (0.6 percent), library books and librarians (0.5 percent), and computer support (0.5 percent). Basic supplies are rationed in absurd ways: A school will pay $5 million in salaries to teachers who end up wasting time writing on blackboards because the school has run out of paper that costs a penny a page. (Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher.)
This parsimony is particularly unfortunate because, while employees become more expensive every year, technology and intellectual property become cheaper and better. Instructional software improves, computers become more powerful, good children’s books multiply.
Take e-books. Any parent whose child has gotten hooked on Harry Potter knows that many children are natural, even addictive, readers. They are more likely to read prodigiously if they have immediate and unlimited access to books, so, for example, when they finish the first book in a series, they can start the next one immediately instead of waiting for the next trip to a school library. This can be done by giving students an e-reader stuffed with 100 books. Such devices can be passed on to other students and the long-term cost is no greater than buying books in hard copy.
Overspending on class-size reduction is particularly unconscionable in tough fiscal times. We need to invest in ways that will help teachers be more effective, such as professional development, technology, school leadership and abundant curricular materials. Spending in these areas, already too low, should not be cut further in blind adherence to the cult of small class size.
The writer, a former New York City councilwoman representing Manhattan, is founder and chief executive of the Success Charter Network, a collection of seven charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx.