May 26, 2011

When Budget Cuts Necessitate Class Size Increases

Eric Hanushek is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His newest book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools,describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.
The economic downturn across the country has a lot of people talking about class size reduction. By and large, people are saying bigger classes would be a calamity for public schools. These discussions, while ever-tinged by politics, ignore both basic facts and research evidence.
The rhetoric of class size policy has been virtually constant for more than a decade. If one carefully culls the research literature, it is possible to find studies that conclude that achievement will improve with smaller classes. It did not take much of a sales pitch to convince parents, school officials, and legislators that everything should be done to bring class sizes down, resulting in a steady fall of class sizes. And, with the help of federal stimulus funds, most districts managed to keep prior reductions even as state fiscal conditions deteriorated. Handing out pink slips to teachers in the spring (and rescinding them later) was the perennial political maneuver to ensure that education takes small if any funding cuts.
Until now. Without further federal stimulus and without recovery from the recession, schools have begun to really feel the budget pressure for the first time, and the obvious way to deal with any budget slowdown or actual reduction is to let class sizes drift up a little. But this has reinvigorated the political efforts to hold education harmless from any fiscal demands. This situation has led to hysterical news media coverage about enormous classes and testimonials about how it has simply become impossible to teach with so many students in one class. It has also prompted the class size reduction lobbyists to quote back their evidence with the twist of how this is the worst thing that could happen to schools.
But an increase is actually different from a reduction. When reducing class size, one must hire more teachers, which means that the school system will essentially get a random draw that is expected to yield an average teacher. But increasing class size means that some current teachers must be laid off, and here the schools have an advantage. They know how effective their teachers are, so they are not forced to lay off an average teacher. They can in fact lay off below average teachers.
When budget shortfalls necessitate reductions in force, laying off the weakest teachers would lead to dramatic improvements in student achievement. As I have described elsewhere, replacing the worst 5-8 percent of our teachers with average teachers would be expected to move student outcomes near to if not at the top of the international league tables for math and science performance. And this would have enormous benefits for the U.S. economy and for the students who now have greater skills when they enter the labor force.
But wouldn't the increased class sizes offset any gains? In simplest terms, no. The evidence has been rehashed many times. The latest Brookings study, for example, concludes once again that the small class size increases from the current fiscal pressures would be virtually undetectable. Part of the confusion over the outcomes arises from the unwillingness or inability of schools to make decisions based on the effectiveness of teachers. By applying last in, first out rules (LIFO for short) to any dismissals, schools almost completely eliminate the chance to improve the learning for our children. When you use seniority as the determining factor in layoffs, you let some of your best teachers go. And, because their salaries are lowest, you have to lay off a greater number of new teachers (as opposed to more senior teachers).
To obtain a five percent savings in budget, schools must typically let average student-teacher ratios drift up by less than one student per teacher. This would put student-teacher ratios back roughly to where they were five or six years ago – larger yes, but hardly the dark ages. It certainly does not require a doubling of class sizes as some of the media accounts might suggest. The real data show that student-teacher ratios and class sizes have been falling throughout the past decade – and the recent changes are not in any way simply a continuation of a long slide toward larger classes.
Doing the right thing does require active decision making by schools and policy makers. Some of this may become easier as legislatures in states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and more revisit the rules on hiring, retention, and school decision making. But it is not automatic.
The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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