Sizing Up Classrooms

Jul 9, 2011 by

Larry Sand

It’s time to expose the “smaller-is-better” myth.

Summer is in full swing, and teachers’ unions are going on the offensive. Perhaps hoping to build on the public-relations bonanza that was California’s “State of Emergency,” union activists and their progressive allies plan to rally in Washington, D.C. and around the country later this month as part of the “Save Our Schools March and Call to Action.” The public will hear from writers like Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch about the indignities schools have purportedly been forced to endure in the wake of the economic downturn. One of their key themes will be the “class-size crisis.”

Teachers like smaller classes, and understandably so. The advantages include fewer papers to grade, students to manage, and parents to deal with. The teachers’ unions like smaller classes, too. Smaller classes mean more teachers—and more union dues. And parents like smaller classes because they believe that their children benefit from more individual attention. Everyone agrees that smaller classes are better, right?

In a word: no. Much of the rhetoric supporting small classes is demagogic and runs afoul of the research. Let’s begin with the oft-heard union claim that classes are getting larger. Not quite. A U.S. Department of Labor chart, courtesy of teacher-union watchdog Mike Antonucci, tells the tale. Since the mid-1950s, the number of public-education employees—including teachers—has risen steadily and inexorably nationwide. Brief hiring disruptions occur only during recessionary times, which result in a minor diminution in personnel. Immediately following the downturn, however, the hiring resumes with gusto. The result is that since the mid-1950s, the U.S. student population has increased by 60 percent, while the number of public education workers, including teachers, administrators, and other non-certificated staff, has exploded by 300 percent. (For every new member in California, the union pockets more than $600 a year in dues.) Antonucci has reported on this phenomenon for years. When the economy inevitably contracts, the bellyaching and the hand-wringing about laying educators off begin anew.

What’s more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one. In California, going back to 1999, the average class size across all elementary and secondary schools was 20.9 pupils. Today it is 25.4.

via Sizing Up Classrooms by Larry Sand

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