Does class size matter?
The answer is, not as much as the Toledo Federation of Teachers and other teacher unions would like you to believe.
Three TFT members, whose union is four-square behind the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama, were featured in a news conference organized by the Obama campaign on Friday. The Blade covered the event.
The news conference was called to respond to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who said at a campaign event at a Philadelphia charter school that class size didn't make a difference in Massachusetts so he allocated state money in other ways.
“Anyone with a little common sense would know that smaller class sizes are better,” said special-education teacher Erika Ragland.
The teachers and the Obama campaign exaggerated what Romney said. The Obama campaign claimed that Romney said that "against all evidence to the contrary that larger class sizes are the answer to a good education."
In fact, Romney did not advocate "larger class sizes" as some kind of panacea.
Nor is there is not a lot of evidence that smaller class sizes is worth the high cost.
In working on the story, we found that research and current education thinking says that reducing class sizes has, at best, a modest benefit for pupils.
In an era when public money is scarce, is the money best spent on hiring a new teacher at $50,000 or more a year including the benefits? Or is there more bang for the buck spent in other ways?
The teachers told us that common sense dictates that children benefit from getting a bigger share of the teacher's attention.
Something else that common sense tells us is that the teachers' union would be in favor of anything that requires school districts to hire more teachers.
The teachers' union doesn't want to dwell on how it's going to be paid for.
One of the teachers in this news conference, Betty Evans, a 41-year veteran who teaches in an elementary behavior modification school, bemoaned the fact that Gov. John Kasich's budget slashed $2 billion from public education over two years.
The reason Kasich cut the budget is that he didn't want to raise state taxes and the Obama stimulus money had run out. We asked Mrs. Evans where that $2 billion was supposed to come from and she shrugged her shoulders.
Getting back to class size.
The most oft-cited study on class-size reduction, Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio, done in the 1980s, compared students in average classes of 15 with those in classes averaging 22 students and found that achievement four years later for the students in the smaller classes was equivalent to an additional three months of school. It found the biggest positive impact among disadvantaged students in the earliest grades.
Obviously, the school districts in Ohio that have low-income populations are the urban districts, such as Toledo Public Schools.
Thus, the strong belief in Toledo in smaller class sizes.
President Obama's own secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said that class size is a sacred cow that pales in importance compared with having the best quality teachers at the head of the class.
"My point there was that I think the quality of the teacher is so hugely important," Duncan said in a report published in the Huffington Post. "Give me the parent, give me an option of 28 children in a class with a phenomenal teacher or 22 children in a class with a mediocre teacher. If I was given that choice, I would choose a larger class size.’”
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and and education activist, said, “Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets - and one of the most unchallenged - is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same." He suggested giving a raise to the top 25 percent of teachers who agree to take on 5 extra students.
And finally, former District of Columbia school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who grew up in Toledo, said that smaller class size "doesn't necessarily mean better outcomes for kids."
"For decades in this country, we were really focused on this notion that smaller class sizes meant that kids were going to get more attention and, therefore, we would have better outcomes. But if you look at the research, it's very clear that that's actually not the case, and that really what we need to be focusing in on is the quality of the teacher in front of the children, that that's much more important than class sizes," Ms. Rhee said.