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Bigger Classes for Better Teachers? Not So Fast, Report Says

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An analysis by Georgetown University's Edunomics Lab recently suggested that, at least in theory, districts could save money and improve student learning by offering the most effective teachers higher salaries to take on slightly larger classes. A new review of that study, however, finds significant flaws in the idea.

Patricia H. Hinchey, a professor of education at Penn State University, took a closer look at the Georgetown report in a paper published by National Education Policy Center, a research group based at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. She found many of the same problems our colleague Stephen Sawchuk touched on when the report first came out: Specifically, that the analysis was based on a lot of assumptions and relatively little firm evidence.

The authors of the original report make the case that, under a staffing model where the best teachers took on more students, the negative effects of larger classes would be outweighed by the benefits of good teaching. Thus, they say, districts could increase class sizes for the best teachers without worrying that they're harming student learning. In the process, they can save millions of dollars that could, in turn, be filtered to teachers in the form of bonuses.

But, says Hinchey, the authors don't actually have any empirical evidence to back up their assumptions, while smaller class sizes have consistently been linked to student success. Besides, she argues, it's hard to reliably identify the most effective teachers, and many studies have cautioned against using value-added models as the basis of salary decisions.

Furthermore, Hinchey points out that bonuses have a poor track record when it comes to balancing out poor working conditions, meaning that teachers would be unlikely to accept this system unless it included more wholesale changes to schools. And many classes are already overcrowded—the Edunomics report focused on a district in which the average class size was 22, ignoring the countless teachers, says Hinchey, who would likely be grateful to have classes that small.

Hinchey also contends that the authors seem to have made "selective use of research," ignoring some aspects of the research they rely onlike warnings about VAM's reliabilitywhile quoting statistics that don't actually seem to appear in the studies they cite.

"Rather than a practical response to known issues ... ," Hinchey writes, "the proposal seems primarily a scheme to reduce the teaching force. The report is superficial and misleading, and its proposal has no value as a nationwide model."

The Edunomics report was latest in a string of initiatives tied to the idea of rearranging school staffing structures in order to maximize the reach of the most effective teachers. The education consulting firm Public Impact has put forward several potential models that would have highly effective teachers taking on more work, including a multi-classroom setup already in use in at least one school. These more complex models offer a variety of options for schoolsalthough interestingly, Public Impact also proposes one model that's almost identical to the one in the Georgetown report.

Image: woodleywonderworks/Flickr Creative Commons

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