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Better Teaching, Higher Salaries, and Lower Costs? Analysis Says It's Possible

Giving the most effective teachers in a district just a few more students to instruct could potentially improve student outcomes while controlling personnel costs, says a provocative analysis released this week.

The paper is based on data from one growing school district, Cypress-Fairbanks near Houston. Analysts Marguerite Roza and Amanda Warco, both of the Eduonomics Lab at Georgetown University, estimate that if each teacher in the district's top performance quartile were willing to take on three additional students—from about 22 to 25 at the elementary level—then the district could save over $11 million in salary and benefits, and return it to teachers in the form of a bonus of about $8,000 apiece. 

In all, the paper concludes, such a scenario would help improve access to effective teachers without increasing costs. As a district's enrollment grew, the analysis suggests, it could assign new students to the most effective teachers, and hold off on hiring more.

For all of its figures, the paper is probably best thought of as a think-piece—it relies heavily on assumptions, such as the notion that a district can accurately identify its best teachers, and that effective teachers en masse would be willing to take on more students. (And to be fair, many collective bargaining agreements already give stipends to teachers whose classes exceed agreed-upon limits.) In any case, there are some pretty big challenges to implementing such a program at any scale, not least of which would be objections from the teachers' unions, which probably wouldn't like the report's call to hire fewer teachers.

Another challenge, of course, has to do with the "tipping point," at which a teacher becomes less effective because of the added responsibility of new students. It's unclear what that is. 

I'm unaware of any districts that have actually tried out this idea, but there are a few places that are toying with conceptually similar approaches. Six districts and networks are using models developed by the nonprofit Public Impact that try to expand the impact of effective teachers through the use of clever scheduling, technology, and career-advancement paths, rather than simple class-size increases. 

The Edunomics Lab's research focus is on education finance and economics and alternatives to current district spending patterns. (Its funders include several philanthropies, including the Walton Family Foundation, which supports Education Week's coverage of parent empowerment.)

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Amanda Warco's surname.

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