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Guest Editorial:
The Struggle For Smaller Classes in Urban Districts

By Noreen Connell

The evidence of a relationship between class sizes in the early grades and student achievement, especially for boys from low-income, urban families, is so strong you would think that urban school systems would have adopted this strategy a long time ago. The research on the benefits of smaller class sizes is solid—children can gain six months to a year’s worth of progress in learning. Noted economists and statisticians have described the design and methodology of the assessment of Tennessee’s STAR experiment as approaching the gold standard. And another well-crafted assessment of a class size reduction program in Wisconsin duplicated these research findings.

But class size reduction is not sexy. It is not an urban school strategy. It doesn’t have powerhouse foundation support. The only public official of note who embraced it was President Bill Clinton. Superintendents and state commissioners tend to be hostile toward the concept and ignore the research findings.

Why does class size reduction pose such a threat to policymakers? First of all, it is a challenge to the concept of “Efficiency.” Lots of government initiatives get funded on the premise that the initiative will save money in the long run. “Saving money” usually means fewer staff members. Class size reduction, on the other hand, means that the school system has to hire more personnel, not less.

Second, it challenges the cost-benefit argument for “Specialization.” Education policy making since the beginning of the 1920’s has been heavily influenced by a model—borrowed from the medical profession—of developing specialists for learning problems. The assumption is that most children will succeed in large general education classes, and those who do not can always be referred for specialized services. The additional assumption is that these specialized services are effective.

The third source of opposition is the strangest. Somehow, the logic goes, the reduction in class sizes in urban schools so that they are closer to class sizes in more affluent school districts will somehow affect teacher quality. Opponents of smaller class size, and this includes state education officials, ask parents and advocates this hypothetical question all the time: “What would you rather have, a well prepared teacher or a smaller class size?” It’s a strange question, really. Why is there a need to choose between the two? The assumption is that the expansion of instructional personnel will lower standards. This is another case of clashing values. The focus in New York City has been on a more selective recruitment of teachers—getting the best and the brightest. In contrast, reducing class sizes puts the focus on teacher retention. The reality is that urban schools have a very high quit rate. In New York City, after five years, almost half of new teachers leave the system. While some go to suburban school systems with smaller classes and higher salaries, the majority leave the profession entirely because they have been unsatisfied with their experience or their own performance. There are two distressing aspects of this quit rate: 1) The best prepared teachers, those with better grades from better colleges, tend to be the ones who quit. 2) Children in the lowest-income neighborhoods are the students who are more likely to be continuously subjected to the least prepared teachers—the new teacher. Surveys of teachers consistently find that smaller class size ranks close to compensation as an inducement to remain in the teaching profession. But retention strategies rank low in urban school systems.

The fourth problem is the most difficult to talk about. Some of the opposition to smaller class sizes—and it gets expressed in budget terms as well—is simply hypocrisy; class and racial hypocrisy. If it makes people feel more comfortable, it could be called “Lack of Consensus on Education for Poor Children.” America pioneered universal, public education. Yet there was more than a century of exclusion of African-American children from education. Then there was almost another century of separate but unequal education—and nowhere near universal education—for African-American children. And now American schools are in the process of re-segregation.

Remaining elements of race and class bias is really the only explanation for the strange disconnect when it comes to small class sizes. They are touted as a major benefit to upper class parents looking at private schools. The schools that charge $28,000 a year tuition do not say, we pay every teacher $100,000 or all of our teachers have Ph.D.’s. No, the message is “We offer small class sizes.” What do working class and middle class suburban parents get offered as the primary advantage of being in the suburbs with their high taxes and high commuting costs? New initiatives for at risk children? No, they don’t want their children to be put “at risk.” They want better chances for their children to succeed. What are they offered? Smaller class sizes.

One of the interesting findings of the Wisconsin Sage study is that there was little “value added” in providing smaller classes to more affluent, white children. And yet these are the children  are in smaller classes. In contrast, when it comes to urban schools system, class size reduction is rejected as a strategy to improve student achievement despite the research findings. This is double talk. And it’s double talk across the nation. Wherever there have been victories in adopting standards for smaller classes—such as in California or Florida—you see parents and teachers and civic groups leading this reform effort, not education officials.

There is a chance that class size reduction will be on the ballot in New York City in 2006—so this is the typical pattern of how class sizes get reduced. There is so much opposition by government and education officials that it has to be adopted by legislative action or voter mandate. Given this dynamic, we must recognize that research findings will not be enough. Logic will not work. Those who believe in a fairer education system will simply have to roll up their sleeves and work to make smaller class sizes a reality in urban school districts.#

Noreen O’Connell is the President of the Education Priorities Panel in NYC, a coalition of twenty-five civic groups that work together to drive more resources to the classroom in New York City. This article was extrapolated from a talk she gave recently at NYU.



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