Betsy DeVos reignites debate on whether class size matters

Should districts invest in better teachers or smaller classes?

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos lobbed the equivalent of a live grenade in the education war of words with her recent statement to Congress on class size: 

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 quality and outstanding results. 

When challenged on that statement by Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, DeVos said:

Given education freedom initiatives, there are different kinds of environments in which students learn well. Some students can learn better with larger classes with more students to collaborate with, to learn with. There’s plenty of research that will undergird the fact that mandating a certain class size doesn’t yield results.

Class size is among the most debated issues in education – except among teachers and parents. Teachers believe it’s obvious that smaller classes allow them to teach more and students to learn more. Teachers can get to know their students better, thus enabling the critical relationships that provide the foundation of learning. Parents agree, maintaining their children have less of a chance of being overlooked in a small class.

Teachers and parents have influenced state policy. In a recent update on national teacher staffing, “Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force,” University of Pennsylvania researchers found public school elementary-level class size decreased by 20 percent from the late 1980s to 2015-16. 

Class size fell from an average of 26.2 to 21.1 students per general elementary school classroom. As a result,  elementary schools now have more teachers. 

Because elementary teachers comprise the largest field of teaching, almost a third, their increase explains about 27 percent of growth in America’s teacher ranks, according to the report. (The report also notes that while elementary school class size shrank, middle and secondary schools saw increases in average class sizes during this same period.)

While DeVos is under siege for her comment, she’s not the first secretary of education to suggest schools might be wiser to invest in stronger teachers rather than smaller classes. Arne Duncan, secretary of education for most of Obama’s tenure, argued, “We spent billions of dollars to reduce class size when we could instead give teachers higher salaries in exchange for larger classrooms, thereby attracting much more talented teachers.”

And I have talked to teachers – as recently as last week – who said they’d be willing to add more students to their rolls in exchange for higher pay. These are typically teachers with enviable track records of raising student performance.

You can find dozens of treatises on whether districts should invest in lowering class size or other strategies, such as the recruitment and hiring of more effective teachers. A comprehensive review of the research by the Brookings Institution concluded: 

Despite there being a large literature on class-size effects on academic achievement, only a few studies are of high enough quality and sufficiently relevant to be given credence as a basis for legislative action. Because the pool of credible studies is small; the individual studies differ in the setting, method, grades, and magnitude of class size variation that is studied; and no study is without issues, including those reviewed here, conclusions have to be tentative.

It appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have meaningful long-term effects on student achievement and perhaps on non-cognitive outcomes. The academic effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. They may also be largest in classrooms of teachers who are less well prepared and effective in the classroom.

Among educators weighing in DeVos’ comments and the longstanding class size debate is Peter Greene, who writes the Curmudgucation blog.

My point is this-- it is not unlikely that DeVos has, over her years in the reformster biz, encountered something passing itself off as research to support this idea. She is certainly not the first person to say it out loud.

Her doing so points to many things, in particular the reformistan bubble, which has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people's money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, "Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I'd have to say that idea is ridiculous bull****.”

Mississippi teacher Amy Teel Hayes saw her Facebook response to DeVos’ comment on class size go viral this week. 

She began her note: “Oh, Betsy DeVos, as we say here in the South (where teachers are grossly underpaid) bless your heart! Walk with me into a 4th grade classroom. Class size: 28 Teacher: 1.” 

Hayes spelled out the urgencies teachers must address before they can even begin to teach: 

The day begins with 3 who have to go to the office for meds, 1 who forgot meds and cannot be still.... quiet.... stay on task in any way! (Because there's so many kids in one class, these kids can't focus.)
2 who didn't have breakfast (check cabinet for snacks I bought for kids like this), 5 who didn't have anyone to help with homework.
1 who is running a fever, but mom has to work two jobs and has no one to pick them up. 
And wait...I notice little "Bobby" has worn the same clothes for 4 days- (make a mental note to talk to the counselor.)

Hayes ended with: 

This is NOT an exception! This is a typical public school class on a typical day...Betsy, honey, you are MANY pay grades above me, yet you have so much to learn. Let's not forget that every doctor, lawyer, garbage truck driver, public service worker, fire fighter, and yes.... even politician would not be where they are without the help of a what? A teacher!

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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