Voices in Education

The Strategic Question of Class Size
In his new edited volume, Stretching the School Dollar, Frederick Hess notes that teacher ranks have grown twice as fast as student enrollment over the past several decades, sharply increasing what has always been the single largest expenditure in district budgets. In times of limited resources, the essential question for policy makers should be how to save money while also maximizing teacher productivity.

In his chapter in Stretching the School Dollar, “The Efficient Use of Teachers,” Steven Wilson argues that the work of teaching can be made more efficient by organizing classes based on students’ needs.

We suggest administrators go one critical step further. Not only should students be grouped based on need, teachers should also be matched with students based on their instructional strengths.

In our book, A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability, we share the example of former Tennessee middle school principal Joel Giffin, who describes how he used value-added assessment both to gauge the progress of low-, middle-, and high-achieving students and to identify the strengths of his teachers.

To begin, test data was used to form strategic student groupings based on their prior academic achievement. To match teacher strengths with student needs, individual teachers then plotted their students’ scores from the current year against those from the previous year, so they could determine their relative effectiveness with students performing at different academic levels.

Giffin offered his teachers a choice between classrooms with 25 students, where half were on grade level and the balance scattered well above and below grade level, and classrooms with 35 students grouped homogeneously by achievement level. Despite the greater number of students, his teachers preferred the larger classes because they would not have to significantly differentiate their instruction. But when the groups of students they were assigned—low-, average or high-achieving—were also precisely those with whom they were most effective, teachers further embraced the larger class size because they found themselves able to teach to their strengths.

These classroom groupings were flexible—quite unlike “tracking”—and students were moved at any point during the year to ensure that the system was designed to maximize student potential. Giffin also discovered a reduction in troublesome behavior because when students are “in-synch” with their curriculum, they tend not to act out as a result of boredom or frustration.

Under Giffin’s leadership, the Maryville Middle School was for many years the most successful school in Tennessee in terms of growth, with a 10-year average of 144 percent of the national norm growth rate in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Though some schools may not be able to implement this system exactly as designed, the guiding principle is clear: making assignment decisions by matching teacher strength to student need can help increase efficiency.

Inevitably, we need to do more to invest in teachers’ development; however, the experience in Maryville demonstrates that we can enhance teacher effectiveness with existing dollars. To improve schooling, we need to stop asking all of our teachers to perform exactly the same task. Rather, we need to start being strategic about identifying our students’ needs and our teachers’ strengths and innovate in terms of how we structure both teaching and learning.

Finally, in an era of fiscal constraint, administrators everywhere will increase class size to save money. But if this is done using the approach Giffin pioneered in Tennessee, this can also lead to major gains in student learning.

In A Grand Bargain for Education Reform, we present a vision for how value-added assessment can be used as the foundation of a comprehensive approach for evaluating, compensating, remediating, and providing professional development for our teachers. Though some of these reforms require new investment, in the absence of additional funds, steps can still be taken to use value-added assessment to maximize teachers’ influence on student learning.

About the Author: Theodore Hershberg is a professor of public policy and history and director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of Operation Public Education. Claire Robertson-Kraft is associate director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia and of Operation Public Education, and a former elementary school teacher. They are editors of  A Grand Bargain for Education Reform: New Rewards and Supports for New Accountability (Harvard Education Press, 2009)