The New Reverse Class Struggle
Although Smaller Sizes Are Touted, Some Say Bigger May Be Beneficial

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

It was 9:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Jane Reiser's mathematics class in Room 18 was stuffed with sixth- and seventh-graders. There were 32 of them, way above the national class size average of 25. Every seat was filled -- 17 girls, 15 boys, all races, all learning styles. A teacher's nightmare.

And yet, despite having so many students, Reiser's class was humming, with everybody paying attention. She held up a few stray socks to introduce a lesson on probabilities with one of those weird questions that interest 11- and 12-year-olds:

If you reach into your sock drawer in the dark, what are the chances you will pull out two the same color?

Billie-Jean Bensen, principal of Herbert Hoover Middle School in Rockville, called Reiser "outstanding," "fabulous" and "truly amazing," able to get great results despite her large class size.

So why, some experts are asking, are educators and politicians so bent on reducing class sizes? Wouldn't it be better to let classes get bigger? Then schools could reduce the number of teachers, keep good ones like Reiser and pay them more.

The idea seems odd to many. But some scholars and administrators say raising class sizes and teacher pay might improve achievement.

Saul Cooperman, a former New Jersey education commissioner, said in the newspaper Education Week recently that if schools established a class size of 30 to 35 in all grades except third grade and below, they would, for the same money, be able to raise the average teacher salary from $50,000 to more than $75,000.

"What I am suggesting is heresy to most people," Cooperman said in the article, "because everybody seems to love smaller classes."

But according to Cooperman, chairman of the Academy for Teaching and Leadership in Far Hills, N.J., those negative reactions would soften once people thought about it. He said even local teacher union leaders would be intrigued. "Unions, first and foremost, are made up of people who operate in their members' interest," he said. "And a 51 percent pay raise is certainly in a union member's interest!"

Chris Whittle, founder and chief executive of the for-profit public school management company Edison Schools, makes a similar point in his new book, "Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education." He argues that schools might be able to pay their best teachers as much as $130,000, in part by ending the campaign to make classes smaller and instead have students do some clerical work and spend significant parts of the school day studying on their own.

Whittle acknowledged that virtually all U.S. adults believe that the smaller number of children in a class, the better the educational results. "But ask yourself why you believe this," he wrote. "Which would be better, a bad teacher with 15 kids or a good one with 30?

The most sophisticated study of class size, the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio project in Tennessee, found that students in smaller classes outscored their larger-class friends on standardized tests. But only when class sizes fell below 18.

In 1996, California Gov. Pete Wilson persuaded the state legislature to authorize a $650 bonus to schools for every student attending a kindergarten-to-third-grade class with no more than 20 students. This produced many more classes that required more teachers, many of whom, parents complained, were inexperienced and ineffective.

Manhattan Institute scholar Abigail Thernstrom said going the other way -- toward bigger classes and better teachers -- has merit. For example, she cited the work of one New York City fifth-grade teacher who had a high-achieving class of 45 students. "We're not going to get [such teachers] in significant numbers without higher pay."

Eric Hanushek, an economist who studies student achievement at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said, "I would advocate letting class sizes creep up somewhat and using the released funds to go toward teacher salaries." But, he said, it would be "a long, long time" before this produced more achievement if ineffective teachers got the raise, too.

"There is an economic theorem," he said, "that bad teachers like more pay about as much as good teachers, so increased salaries do not have any effect on the retention of good teachers unless some other policies are also put in place." Higher salaries would lead to more applicants for openings, Hanushek said, but "there is not a lot of evidence that school districts tend to hire better teachers when they have a larger pool to choose from."

What kind of students would be in the larger classes would be important, experts said. Reiser's math class of 32 has only advanced students, with fewer behavior problems than found in a regular class. And small classes, research indicates, are particularly good for poorer students. "With students who are barely passing, or not passing, the bigger the class, the less individual attention they are going to get, even from wonderful teachers," said Tim Hacsi of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

But even teachers sometimes say other factors are more important than reducing class size in helping students. Abigail Smith, vice president of research and public policy at Teach for America, said young teachers surveyed in that program gave higher priority to raising teacher quality, principal quality and expectations for students.

Still, it is hard to find teachers who like Cooperman's idea of more pay in exchange for larger classes. National Education Association President Reg Weaver said "it creates a situation where public schools are forced to choose between a quality teacher and a quality learning environment for their students, a choice that should never have to be made."

Reiser, a teacher for 25 years, said she has developed a system of regular communication among herself, her students and their parents that motivates learning. "I call parents a lot, especially when I have good news," she said. Some parents and students have told her that they save her phone messages just for the joy of replaying them.

In an initial interview, she said she might think about accepting a class of 35 if she got a $20,000 raise. But she called back to say she had thought about it. The answer was no.

She doesn't have as many as 35 students yet, she said, but even with 32 she sometimes has to cut off questions because there is not enough time. "That is frustrating for me," she said. "I don't care if it is $50,000 more. I am not going to do this."

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