(portions published in the May 9, 1999 Plain Dealer in response to the May 1 editorial “Simple, yes; Effective, no”)
May 1, 1999
I was pleased to read that your editorial staff recognized in its May 1 editorial “Simple, yes; Effective, no” that “the problems [of raising student achievement] are complex.” However, I am greatly disappointed at the simplistic and even contradictory stance the editors took. The headline blared, “Smaller classes would create logistical problems without improving achievement” even though the article admitted, “It is true that when early elementary classes dip below a certain number … student achievement improves.”
Research is very clear that reducing actual class sizes (not just student/teacher ratios) to 20 or below leads to real and sustained improvements in student achievement. This gain is most dramatic for urban, male, minority, and disadvantaged students. The editorial, however, suggests that “achievement also improves, markedly, when the teacher in front of a class is qualified and competent” as if it were an either…or scenario. The research still shows that elementary students with a qualified and competent teacher in a class of 17 outperform elementary students with a qualified and competent teacher in a class of 25. Besides, isn’t it remotely possible that most teachers are qualified and competent?
While cost is a major concern in implementing such change, an April 1998 U. S. Department of Education report concludes that the two approaches used thus far to estimate costs (production function analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis) have been “fraught with methodological difficulties” such as confusing class size with student/teacher ratio. In addition, the report highlights that “researchers have not yet assessed the total impact of small classes…If, in the long run, the need for remedial and special education teachers is reduced, discipline problems and violence are reduced, and/or fewer students leave without graduating, then there is a real gain…of academic and behavioral benefits that have cost-savings value.”
Yes, there is a serious space crunch; yes, schools are overcrowded; yes, reducing class size may mean more teacher salaries and benefits. But these are investments in our children we must make now and which have proven long-term returns.