(submitted in response to The Plain Dealer May 3, 1999 editorial on class size "A Study Worth Refining")
May 3, 1999
I commend your editors on acknowledging the importance of the findings of Tennessee’s Project STAR after questioning the impact of class size reduction in editorials on April 18 and May 1. Yet unbelievably, they talk about the STAR findings as if they were newly released. These findings have been available since 1990. “Last week’s announcement” could only refer to the remarks of congressmen discussing this data following a recent hearing by the Committee on Education and the Workforce. How could responsible editors make such a mistake given the fact that your paper covered last month’s series of community forums by the Cleveland Teachers Union presenting this very same data? (see Scott Stephens’ April 14 article)
Even more disturbing are judgments such as “the studies do not address a more crucial question: How do improvements attributed to class size compare with those achieved by strengthening teacher quality?” Do your editors assume that having smaller classes means having unqualified teachers? Is it impossible to have smaller classes and quality teachers? This inability to see any other possibilities is reminiscent of the “All in the Family” episode where Archie Bunker is stymied by a puzzle offered by his son-in-law: A father and son are brought to a hospital after a tragic accident. The father is dead and the son is in critical condition. The surgeon upon arriving announces, “I can’t operate. This is my son!” Archie’s bigotry and sexism never let him consider the notion of a female physician. The creation of a false polarization between class size and teacher quality is dangerous because it unnecessarily directs focus away from the obvious benefits class size reductions offer our students. This is especially important given that the improvement among minorities in Project STAR was twice as large as it was for white students.
For nearly a decade, STAR and its follow-ups have been widely recognized as the most exhaustive, authoritative and methodologically sound research on class size. Although the students in small classes were returned to normal classes after fourth grade, their progress was tracked through high school where they still outperformed other students. The “reams of data” on the other side of the question are outdated, of questionable validity, and therefore worthless. Your editors need to do more homework before writing their pieces. Failure to give complete and accurate information on such an important issue as education is irresponsible, insulting to your readership, and ultimately harmful to our state’s children.