Class size matters

Especially for struggling students, a good teacher isn't enough

March 16, 2011|By Kalman R. Hettleman

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a smart man. Arguably, he has been the most effective person to ever hold that office, charting a bold national course of school reform.

But he said a really dumb thing recently. In a talk to the National Governors Association, as reported by The New York Times, he said that he would prefer to put his own school-age children in a classroom with 28 students led by a "fantastic" teacher than in one with 23 students and a "mediocre" teacher.

Ironically, his talk centered on urging governors, while retrenching state budgets, to avoid "dumb" cuts to education. But he set the bar very low with his oversimplified endorsement of larger class sizes.

True, the importance of teacher-student ratios for instruction has been long and hotly debated. But he epitomized the overgeneralizations and false dichotomies that hinder smart policymaking on the subject.

For example, we know little about how to rate teacher performance; witness the current national controversy over teacher evaluations. But even if we could reliably differentiate between "fantastic" and "mediocre" teachers, the great majority of teachers would fall somewhere in between.

And the range Mr. Duncan cited — between 28 and 23 students in the classroom — masks the reality that class sizes often exceed 35 students. So the choice posed by Mr. Duncan is misleading.

It also neglects the fact that some students, notably low-income, low-performing students, need smaller teacher-student ratios than other students. Most of the research on class size favors smaller classes, especially for disadvantaged students in elementary grades. Moreover, teachers tend to put smaller class sizes at the top of their budget wish list, ahead of even higher pay. Parents feel the same.

But there is a bigger missing link in the debate over class size: the failure to focus on teacher-student ratios for small group instruction for struggling students. Class-size policies only consider teacher-student ratios when teachers are instructing the whole classroom. But such instruction does not meet the needs of the more than half of all urban schoolchildren who are not meeting high standards and need extra assistance in addition to regular instruction in the classroom.

Ample research supports the effectiveness of small-group interventions, such as tutoring, especially for struggling readers. It is impossible in this brief article to summarize all of the variations that can affect the design and delivery of such interventions. For example, the size of such groups can vary from a 1-to-1 teacher-student ratio to groups of say six to eight, depending on many factors — including the severity of reading problems and the time spent on the intervention.

Federal law and state and local policies nationwide recognize this reality. The framework for these policies, termed "response to intervention" (RTI), calls for students who are performing below grade level to receive progressively intense additional instruction. For example, the Maryland State Department of Education RTI manual prescribes a three-tier approach. Tier One is instruction in the regular classroom. If that fails, Tier Two prescribes "Small needs-based groups (i.e. 2-4 students) …Often a minimum of 30-60 minutes, 2-5 times per week." And then, if necessary, Tier Three contemplates even smaller groups and extra time.

Also noteworthy is that, in theory, most students with mild learning disabilities should not be referred for special education until RTI has been effectively implemented.

But RTI, locally and nationally, almost never happens. Extra small-group instruction costs a lot of money for additional well-trained teachers, and urban school systems like Baltimore City's don't have the wherewithal. But the need for such instruction is the elephant in the classroom, overlooked in the sound and fury of ideological wars over school spending and class size and even unnoticed by an exemplary, non-ideological reformer like Mr. Duncan.

Most of the poor performance of American students is rooted in poor reading skills. Decades of local, state and federal initiatives have fallen short. And so will future efforts — like the new national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading spearheaded by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation — without recognition that class size matters, most of all in small group instruction for struggling students.

Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary, is the author of the book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren." His e-mail is

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