New York Can Live with Fewer Teachers
Class Size Could Grow without Hurting Kids' Achievement

No sooner had Mayor Bloomberg warned that budget cuts could result in 6,400 teacher layoffs than the union began suggesting, essentially, that the sky was falling. Said UFT head Michael Mulgrew: "The community has to stand together and say you can't let the children be harmed by a bad economic situation."

But not only would the layoffs of thousands of teachers not mean the sky is falling. If the layoffs are done right, it could mean the sun shines even brighter for the city's students. For while parents have a natural affinity for smaller classes, smaller classes generally don't boost achievement--it's teacher quality that does. And smaller classes actually make it tougher to boost teacher quality.

We have long known that teacher quality has a bigger impact on student learning than any other element of schooling. Research is unequivocal on this point.

Thinning the teacher ranks, done right, could be a very good thing. Harvard University professor Martin West and his colleague Ludger Woessmann have pointed out that several nations that perform impressively, including South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, have average middle-school class sizes of more than 35 students per teacher. (Compare those numbers to the class sizes of 25 or more that, according to the UFT, half of all city fourth graders and 85% of all eighth graders are subjected to--numbers that prompted a union lawsuit.) In fact, the researchers find a "quality or quantity" trade-off, where nations tend to either have highly skilled and better-paid teachers or smaller classes, but not both.

Why, then, the popular attachment to smaller classes? Because smaller classes would be good if a school district could hire all the great teachers it wants and if funding were unlimited.

In the real world, neither of those is true. In practice, smaller classes make it harder for districts to recruit enough talented teachers while soaking up dollars that could otherwise reward good teachers or fund crucial services.

Consider the piece of evidence most often cited by small class enthusiasts, the Tennessee STAR experiment from the late 1980s. In it, researchers found some achievement gains for students in kindergarten and first grade (though not second or third grade) when class size was dramatically reduced in a limited number of pilot schools. These findings inspired California to spend billions on a dramatic 1996 program to reduce class sizes by hiring rafts of teachers--only to have the American Institutes for Research and RAND Corp. conclude that the vast outlays had no impact on student achievement.

Perversely, since the early 1970s, the U.S. has added teachers 50% faster than student enrollment has grown, mimicking California's experience and making it harder to pay good teachers well.

We have long known that teacher quality has a bigger impact on student learning than any other element of schooling. Research is unequivocal on this point. And international evidence and the experiences of high-performing charter schools make it clear that good teachers can serve more students than New York City teachers currently do--allowing thousands of children to escape mediocre classrooms for good ones.

Teachers are among the first to point out that there is dead wood in today's schools. Public Agenda has reported that, nationally, 78% of teachers say there are at least a few teachers in their school who "fail to do a good job." So long as Chancellor Joel Klein fights to ensure that layoffs factor in performance, they offer a powerful opportunity to tackle that problem.

If New York City's teachers aren't sold, they have an easy solution. They did well through the economic boom of the 2000s, with average teacher salary rising by 35% from 2001 to 2009. Meantime, the city's teacher ranks grew by more than 12,000. If the UFT wants to protect all those new jobs, a simple way to forestall layoffs is to simply give back a modest portion of those hefty raises. Michael Mulgrew, what say you?

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Diane Diederich

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About the Author


Frederick M.
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.

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