By Leonie Haimson
Two thirds of teachers are experiencing increased class sizes at their schools due to budget cuts, according to a recent national MET life survey . The problem is particularly evident for those who teach in urban areas with large numbers of at-risk students. In schools from New York to Arizona, Texas to California, class sizes in many schools have swelled to thirty or more, denying teachers a real opportunity to teach and children a real chance to learn.
The same survey showed that these worsening conditions have caused a sharp drop in teacher morale, which has fallen to the lowest level in 20 years. As a result, a growing number of teachers say they intend to quit the profession in the next few years. Swelling class sizes and budget cuts have also led to a growing pessimism, with nearly half of teachers saying that it is unlikely that student achievement will have improved five years from now.
What’s especially discouraging is that while class sizes are rising sharply throughout the nation, helping to damage teacher morale and our children’s opportunity to learn, Democratic and Republican elected officials seem unconcerned. In fact, both Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s proposed education budget and the GOP House bill to revise ESEA would sharply cut back on the amount of federal funds districts are able to spend on class size reduction.
Right now, districts choose to spend about 40 percent of their federal Title II funds to hire new teachers, or retain teachers already on staff, in order to keep class sizes as low as possible. The GOP-led House Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill would cap the level of Title II funds that can be spent on class size reduction at 10 percent, and Duncan’s budget would divert 25 percent of these funds to a new competitive grant program.
Both the U.S. Department of Education and the GOP House members give lip service to “local flexibility” but such measures would severely constrain the way districts choose to spend these critical resources. If either of these bills passed, many schools would be forced to increase class sizes to even higher levels in the future.
The proposals to cut back federal funds available for lowering class size ignores the fact that this reform is one of four K-12 strategies that have been proven to work through rigorous evidence, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education. It is also one of the few reforms shown to effectively narrow the achievement gap, as poor and minority students receive twice the benefit of smaller classes than average students.
In addition, according to Alan Krueger, now head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, the economic benefits of smaller classes outweigh the costs two to one. A recent study showed that students who were in smaller classes in kindergarten were more likely to have graduated from college, own their own home, and have a 401K more than twenty years later.
So how would Duncan and the GOP prefer to spend our precious taxpayer funds instead? They would offer billions of dollars for charter schools, online learning, and merit pay linked to test scores, none of which are backed by research or appear on any list of proven strategies.
Duncan’s budget would funnel $625 million of Title II funds away from class size reduction into a competitive grant program to create and expand “new pathways to teaching” – e.g. to help fund organizations like Teach For America, which supplies an inexperienced, temporary workforce with only five weeks of training to our highest needs schools. He would lavish $400 million on merit pay programs that have failed to improve student outcomes everywhere they have been tried.
While Secretary Duncan professes to respect teachers, he and other members of the administration have consistently ignored their professional advice on to best support their efforts. Indeed, when teachers are surveyed throughout the country, they consistently respond that lowering class size would be one of the best ways to improve student achievement, far more than offering merit pay, linking teacher evaluation to test scores, or implementing the Common Core standards.
For example, in a just-released Scholastic survey, funded by the Gates Foundation, 90 percent of teachers nationally say that having fewer students in their class would have a “very strong” (62 percent) or “strong” impact (28 percent) on student achievement, while only 26 percent said that merit pay would have a strong or very strong positive effect.
Yet Duncan’s budget proposal would spend $850 million on another round of “Race to the Top” grants, offering more incentives to link teacher evaluation and pay to high-stakes testing. He would give away another $255 million on expanding the charter sector, which saps resources and focus from our public school system. He would squander $536 million on the flawed School Improvement Grant (SIG) program (now renamed School Turnaround Grants), with the same rigid and damaging prescriptions: i.e. school closings, conversion to charters, or firing the principal and half of the teaching staff. Only 17 percent of charter schools were shown in a Stanford University study to have outperformed their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were significantly worse. Duncan and the GOP propose that our schools should emulate the business model— does it make good “business sense” to invest in a program with such a low success rate?
The Republican-led House proposals for revamping ESEA are just as ill-advised and wasteful, with the same harmful focus on privatization and merit pay. They do provide one advantage over Duncan’s budget by eliminating the SIG program, which has sparked vehement protests from parents, teachers, and students nationwide, who are opposed to the forced closure of their neighborhood public schools. Yet rather than deep-six the SIG program, it would be far better to reform it, by ensuring that parents, students and teachers are included from the ground up, helping to devise local improvement strategies for their struggling schools based on proven strategies, like class size reduction.
California high school student Sirinya Phakoom won a recent essay contest by describing how she felt when she was in a 9th grade class of 20, the smallest she has ever had. Even though she is usually shy, “in that class, I participated actively in class discussions. In this smaller classroom environment, I felt more comfortable. I didn’t feel obligated to speak; I simply felt that my voice was being heard better, and that people cared to hear it.”
If we want to improve our public schools, our federal government needs to hear the voices of our students, as well as the voices of their teachers. As Sirinya concludes, “Living in the United States guarantees all children a free education. It should also guarantee children a quality education that will last them a lifetime. Simply having smaller classes would make a huge impact on the way students learn and their successes later in life.”
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