News briefs

Duncan OK with class sizes growing nationwide

With packed classrooms becoming a national trend, some are calling it an “opportunity for innovation.”

“Yes, small class sizes do help, but it’s not the only way,” said one New Hampshire middle school principal. “What we need to focus on is how schools are becoming more flexible to meet the different needs of kids.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the current average class size is 25 students. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he expected those numbers to rise, with states relaxing class-size restrictions, and offered fiscal realities as an excuse.

“It’s either class-size increases or the loss of music, arts and after-school programming,” Duncan said at a late November forum. “We support shifting away from class-size-based reduction that is not evidence-based.”

Sorry, Duncan: it is evidence-based. The gold standard, Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio project, begun in 1984, found children in smaller classes as a whole significantly outperforming peers in regular-size classes, with poor and minority pupils doing better still. Follow-up studies of these children — now 30 — show them continuing to do better than their peers in their school years and beyond.

Critics argue that most class-size-reduction programs are too general, and improvements don’t justify the cost of shrinking class sizes, an expensive education improvement strategy. One of them is the Hoover Institute’s Eric A. Hanushek, the rent-a-wonk defender of charter schools in “Waiting for Superman.” He argues that schools should spend money to improve current teachers, not hire more of them.

Duncan sees tightening budgets as an opportunity to experiment with “modest but smartly targeted increases in class size,” such as varying class sizes by teacher expertise or bringing in part-timers to reduce class sizes in core areas.

Education Week, Dec. 1

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