Good Teachers + Small Classes = Quality Education

May 26, 2004


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 City schools.

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 smaller classes."

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 statewide.

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 - are minority.

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 classes?

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 Iraq.

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 financing?

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 good teachers?

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.