student success

Betsy DeVos Wants Larger Class Sizes and Fewer Teachers

In our society, there are so many hot takes offered each day that it’s almost impossible for any single statement to cut through the clutter. As a result, these hot takes can be taken as truth and fact because of the absence of challenging viewpoints. However, sometimes, the rare statement makes us pause for a double take and demands a response. This week, one of those statements came directly from the halls of the U.S. Congress. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in attempting to justify a budget that would cut federal education spending by more than 10 percent, made a claim that stopped me in my tracks:
Students may be better served by being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.
If you’re like me, you probably needed to read that statement twice to make sure you were reading it correctly. But after that second reading, let me confirm that you read correctly—a U.S. Secretary of Education suggested to Congress that our education system could benefit from having fewer teachers in our classrooms.

Doing More With Less

Teachers are used to being asked to do more with less, but this is a step beyond. In an environment where states are struggling to find enough teachers to simply fill vacancies, you would think this statement would be too outlandish to require a rebuttal. However, because of the presence of some research showing that smaller class sizes may have “at best a small effect” on student achievement, the argument that “class size doesn’t matter” has more than a few adherents in policy conversations. But, here’s a simple truth known by anyone who has ever spent time teaching—class size matters and smaller is better. For starters, smaller class sizes allow teachers to better personalize instruction, something routinely cited as best practice. The ability to better personalize with smaller class size is a function of basic math. For example, this year I have six fewer students in my AP Government class. During class discussion, this means each student has an additional half minute daily to share their thoughts. During independent work, this means I can spend an extra half minute with each student. An additional 30 seconds may not sound like much, but over the course of a school year, that could add up to nearly three full days of additional in-class, personalized attention—not to mention my greater capacity to provide more individual attention outside of class time. While funding may be scarce in schools, time is even harder to find, and we should jealously guard any condition that allows students to receive more personalized instruction.

A Formula For Burnout

Smaller class size is essential to prevent teacher burnout. As teachers in my home state have shared repeatedly with legislators, large class sizes wear down teachers and drive them out of the profession. As I’ve written about in the past, the job of a teacher has changed drastically over the past decade, in large part due to the movement to incorporate more instructional practices grounded in mastery learning. These practices are right for students, but they also require far more time to implement because of the need to provide effective feedback, remediation and re-teach concepts. Simply put, it’s impossible to deliver this type of instruction with increased class sizes. Policymakers can opt to increase the number of students in a class, but teachers can’t decide to increase the number of hours in the day to meet the needs of students.

Smaller Classes Are More Effective Classes

As the secretary noted in her statement to Congress, class size reduction is an intervention that numerous school districts around the country have selected as a way to support effective instruction. One key vehicle for class size reduction efforts is funding through Title II, a program that is targeted to support lower-income areas and one the president has proposed to eliminate for the third consecutive year. The rich irony is that this is an administration that speaks repeatedly about the importance of increasing local control over education, but, when it comes to class size reduction, the argument is apparently, “Washington knows best.” To cover for this inconsistency, the president’s budget justifications note that local districts can use other federal revenue streams, like Title I, to fund activities currently financed through Title II, but this is spurious logic. To illustrate, I’ll use an analogy that will resonate far too deeply with the nearly 1 in 5 teachers with second jobs. By the administration’s logic, these teachers don’t really need the income from a second job to pay for utilities and basic needs. Instead, they can just use the income from their first job to pay the bills. As any teacher can tell you, this argument fails because the income from the first job was never enough to cover basic costs, which is exactly the same for school districts where well over 80 percent of funds are spent on salaries, benefits and utilities. Federal funds may only account for about 10 percent of K-12 school spending in America, but to say that cuts in federal spending can be covered by simply reallocating other federal funds assumes that those other funds are being used on unnecessary costs—and that is a false claim. While increased spending efficiencies could certainly be achieved, any district would be hard-pressed to offset the level of cuts proposed by the president without negatively impacting services to students. In spite of all these problems, there is a central grain of truth in the secretary’s statement that I applaud. By implication, the secretary acknowledged that increasing teacher pay is essential to retain the best talent in our profession. However, instead of eliminating teaching positions and overburdening remaining teachers, the appropriate application of the secretary’s logic is simply this: If our nation is truly committed to investing in the educational experience of all students, the starting place is to provide all teachers with the salary and support needed to attract more talented individuals to this incredible profession. Sometimes, less is more, but nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the number of quality teachers in our schools.
Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics in Richland School District 2 in South Carolina, while also working as the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. He was a finalist for South Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2014 and served as a teaching ambassador fellow for the U.S. Department of Education from 2015-2017. Patrick is a National Board ...

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