THE local teachers unions are circulating a new petition to push their perennial pet cause: reducing class sizes.
Never mind that various efforts across the country to shrink classes have consumed rivers of money and produced no discernable improvements in education outcomes. The unions know that a mandate to shrink classes does have onenear-inevitable effect: mass hiring of teachers swelling the unions’ membership and bank accounts.
Class sizes could theoretically be reduced in other ways right now, as many as just under half New York City’s teachers aren’t in the classroom. But in practice, the unions’ stranglehold on the system ensures that shrinking classes means massive teacher hiring.
Asking people whether they want smaller classes for their children is like asking them whether they want to have a personal chef everyone imagines he’ll get Emeril shouting “bam!” right in his own kitchen. But there aren’t enough really great chefs to hire one for everybody. Once you’ve hired Emeril, Julia Child and all four Iron Chefs, you have to start lowering your standards. So if every New Yorker were to get his own personal chef, you’d most likely get a teenage fry cook from a fast-food joint.
The same is true for class-size reduction. To dramatically cut class sizes by hiring many new teachers, New York would have to dip deeper into the labor pool. So the person in front of your child’s smaller class would probably be significantly less qualified than the teacher your child enjoys now.
Smaller-class proponents often point to Tennessee’s STAR project, which randomly assigned elementary-school students either to relatively small classes or to regular classes for four years. Princeton researchers found that where 40 percent of the regular-class students went on to take either the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam, 43.7 percent of small-class students took one of those exams a modest but significant gain.
But that test program stands in marked contrast to the track record of class-size reduction on a broader scale, which can only be done by hiring many less-qualified teachers. In 1996, California devoted $1 billion to its much-ballyhooed effort to shrink elementary-school classes. A Rand Corporation study shows that the students in larger elementary-school classes have improved at about the same rate as students in smaller classes, and concludes that no link can be shown between smaller class sizes and improvement in test scores.
But the study did find one major change: a breathtaking rise in the number of people without full credentials serving as teachers. The new policy obliged the state to add 30,000 teaching staff in just three years. By the end of this frantic hiring spree, teachers without full credentials had jumped from 1.8 percent of the total to 12.5 percent a sevenfold increase.
This fits the national picture: U.S. class sizes have been falling for half a century, with no sign of significant gain in education. The Education Department says there were 22.3 students per teacher in 1970; since then, the ratio has dropped steadily, to 15.1 in 2001. Yet over the same period, national test scores have been flat and graduation rates have fallen slightly.
Remember this if you’re asked to sign the teachers unions’ petition: When class-size reduction has been applied on a large scale, any gains from having fewer students in each classroom seem to have been negated by the need to hire less-qualified people to fill all those new teaching jobs. Large-scale class-size reduction has only two proven results: less-qualified teachers and much higher education costs.
All that extra spending may be delightful for the unions, but why pay more for less?