Good Teachers + Small Classes = Quality Education
May 26, 2004
By MICHAEL WINERIP
The secret to quality public education has never been a big
mystery. You need good teachers and you need small enough
classes so those teachers can do their work. Period. After
that, everything seems to pale, including the testing
accountability programs, technology, building conditions.
Even curriculum seems secondary, as our best public
colleges demonstrate. We have West Point and we have
Berkeley, and the question isn't which has the correct
curriculum; the question is which curriculum is the best
fit for the student and teacher.
Parents get this. Joe Gipson, a black parent from
Sacramento who feels that black students are too often
shortchanged, told me the best thing that happened to his
children's school was the California law capping class size
at 20 through third grade. You can still have incompetent
teachers, he said, but with small classes you can spot them
faster and weed them out.
Good teachers and small classes. Those were the two main
factors New York's highest court cited last year when it
ruled that the state had financially shortchanged New York
The state must provide more money, the court ruled, so the
city can afford to attract more good teachers and improve
classroom conditions, particularly reducing class size.
Michael Rebell, the lead lawyer for the Campaign for Fiscal
Equity, which brought the suit on behalf of the city's poor
children, says that research has shown it's hard to attract
the best teachers until you have good working conditions.
And the crucial element for good working conditions? "Small
class size," he says.
In the original 2001 trial court opinion, Judge Leland
DeGrasse put it succinctly: "The advantages of small
classes are clear. A teacher in a small class has more time
to spend with each student. Fewer students mean fewer
administrative tasks for each teacher. Student discipline
and student engagement in the learning process improve in
There were 72 witnesses and 4,300 exhibits for the trial,
but as Leonie Haimson, a parent advocate, says, the most
important piece of evidence may have been a single table
showing how much larger classes are in New York City than
the rest of the state. In middle school - when so many
children are lost - city classes averaged 28 versus 21
Academic studies show small class size carries many
benefits, even mitigating racial problems that interfere
with learning. A recent study by Tom Dee, a Swarthmore
professor, in "The Review of Economics and Statistics"
concluded that both white and black children achieved more
when they were taught by teachers of their own race. This
is bad news for black children since the vast majority of
teachers, even in big cities, are white and the vast
majority of urban children - 85 percent in New York City -
But there is a hopeful exception. If classes are small, Dr.
Dee found, black children do equally well with a white or
black teacher. "It may be because there's more personal
interaction, less chance for stereotyping," Dr. Dee said.
Market forces tell us that small class size is worth a lot.
Well-to-do parents pay for private schools with good
teachers and small classes. At Horace Mann in the Bronx, a
leading private school, tuition is $25,000 and class size
averages 15 in the middle grades, or half of what it is in
nearby public middle schools.
So what's the obstacle to small class size? Money, of
course. New York's top court did not specify how much was
needed and the politicians have spent the last year
creating committees that have concluded that city schools
need $2 billion to $6 billion more a year in operating
funds. Similar cases in other states have dragged on for
years. The New York case took 10 years to get through the
courts, with Gov. George E. Pataki fighting it every step
of the way.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is losing patience, as well he
should. Having made his own billions in the private sector,
he understands that quality costs. He estimates city
schools need $5.3 billion from the state in extra yearly
operating funds and $6.5 billion more in construction aid.
Smaller class size requires more classrooms, and many city
schools are overcrowded.
Which raises the question: Are we as a people willing to
pay the price - are we willing to sign the social contract
- to give city children more good teachers and small
The answer is supposed to be the federal No Child Left
Behind law, passed in 2002. It mandates that every American
child be proficient in reading and math by 2014, that the
achievement gap between white and black be eliminated once
and for all.
To do this, President Bush's budget calls for spending $13
billion for all Title I poverty schools in America. In
other words, what Mayor Bloomberg says he needs extra for
the New York City schools is what the president has offered
for all the nation's poor schools.
At heart, leaving no child behind is about eliminating
poverty's effects. To President Lyndon B. Johnson, that
meant war - a war on poverty - since war is the best model
we have for the kind of mobilization it would take. We
understand that military wars cost; that's why the
president has asked Congress for an extra $25 billion for
And for the education war? All the rhetoric and data are in
place for the education war: high standards, tough
accountability, disaggregated data by the truckload. But
No Child Left Behind is superb at finding fault. It has
labeled a third of America's schools failing. It has
labeled over half of New York City's middle schools
failing. Within a few years, almost all city middle schools
are expected to carry that label. Fine, fail them all. But
where is the money from the states and the federal
government to arm city schools with small classes and more
Blaming public schools, their principals and teachers for
losing the education war feels a lot like blaming the
ground troops for losing the Vietnam War. Are we committed
to an education war? Do we have the will? I fear that the
late Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, had it
right: We have met the enemy and he is us.