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Sec. Duncan: Districts Need to Rethink Class Size, Salary Structure

The dismal economic climate may well represent "new normal" for schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today at a forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.

That means schools are going to have to make hard choices, Duncan said. And he's hoping they'll use the opportunity fundamentally rethink long-held ideas, such as the need for students to have a certain amount of "seat time" in each particular class, class size, and teacher pay scales that reward educators for getting advanced degrees.

Duncan is hoping that school administrators won't cut areas that directly impact the classroom, such as trimming instructional time, and scrapping art and music classes. And he doesn't want districts laying off "talented young teachers."

"Unfortunately this pattern of cutbacks has too often prevailed in the past," he said.

Instead, districts might want to look at rethinking transportation routes, and closing down schools that are under-enrolled, Duncan suggested.

And he urged districts to consider "modest but smartly targeted increases in class size." As a parent, Duncan said, he'd much rather have his kids in a class of 26 with a really excellent teacher, than in a class with 22 kids, lead by a mediocre teacher. And he said that in Asian countries that tend to do well on international benchmarks (like South Korea and Japan) average classes in secondary schools are in the mid 30's, as opposed to the U.S. average of about 25.

During a question and answer period, one teacher questioned that rationale, saying that if she took on additional students, that's asking her to do more for the same amount of money. Duncan said he'd like districts to consider reworking contracts so that effective teachers (particularly those who choose to work with more kids) can make a lot more money, say $80,000, or even $125,000.

I think there are lots of folks out there who would probably agree that is a good conversation to have. But I'm wondering if the economic downturn will make those types of discussions easier (as in, we have to cut costs anyway, so let's rethink salary structure) or much harder (since districts may not have the spare cash for huge salary increases.) What do you think?

And what's your take on Duncan's class size comments? Comments section is open!

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