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What Betsy DeVos Got Right: Smaller Class Sizes Isn’t Always the Answer

I doubt anyone would disagree that we are living in a very tense political time. In such moments, one can easily offend almost anyone and receive backlash with any personal opinions. However, I have to admit I agree with Betsy Devos, the United States Secretary of Education. It is no secret that Secretary DeVos receives side-eyes, protests, grunts, complaints, and a variety of other forms of dismay for often being a non-relatable, inexperienced, ill advised, and under qualified Secretary of Education compared to her predecessors. With nearly twenty years of experience in education with specific experience regarding the needs of minority, impoverished, and at-risk students, I absolutely feel she has missed the mark addressing the needs of all students as she has yet to present herself as an advocate of equity, which is extremely disappointing. Still, I see the two of us on common ground regarding one specific topic: Smaller classes sizes not always being the answer.

Earlier this year, DeVos defended to a House subcommittee her belief in the benefit of having fewer teachers and larger class sizes. I unequivocally don’t agree with her delivery or intent. Clearly, her angle is to save money by reducing educator positions and repurpose that money. She further argued that no data supports the benefits of smaller class sizes and that’s an absolute falsehood as numerous research supports significantly better outcomes for students whose long-term learning environment included small class sizes along with other factors with the largest being teacher quality. What she was absolutely right about was the benefit of extremely high-quality teachers and her argument should have been centered on their underestimation.

I’m not one to argue with sound research; therefore, I’m not challenging the benefit of small class size when it’s coupled with teacher quality. Yes, a smaller class size reduces teacher stress, allows students, especially struggling students the opportunity to ask more questions. And, if the absolute best teacher for the job who is passionate, able to reach students, and highly effective is given a smaller class size this is an ideal situation. However, this is not always the case. When presented with the realization that we face a massive teacher shortage in our country estimated at approximately 112,000 per year according to the Learning Policy Institute, which is led by renowned educator Linda Darling-Hammond, coupled with the concern around the retention of quality teachers due to various factors, including working conditions and lack of quality professional development, and personalized support, we must not think outside of the box regarding how we create learning environments where the best teachers are in our schools and compensated accordingly but rather respond as if there can never be a box.

Approximately 75-80% of a school district’s budget is personnel costs: Salary and benefits for its employees. And, the average teacher salary in the country in 2017-2018 was $60,477 according to the National Education Association. This ranges from $85,889 in New York to $45,574 in Mississippi. We’ve talked about teacher compensation for years, including paying teachers their worth and raising the status of the profession, but unless the United States wins the lottery, we will never move from conversation to practice unless we rethink class size.

As a father and educator, if I had to choose between a class of fifteen students taught by an unqualified teacher or a teacher who is burnt out, who teaches “to the test,” or who is struggling to build meaningful relationships with his/her students or a class of 40-50 students taught by a highly-qualified teacher who is dedicated to creating memorable learning experiences and has a track record of successfully helping students overcome their weaknesses and excel academically, socially, and emotionally, let me be clear – this would a no-brainer. I would want my child in the class of 40-50 students without hesitation with that teacher who we should be compensating accordingly based on his/her skills, past performance, and commitment to equity and the work. This is the point DeVos should have drove home.

Our children, our society’s future leaders, deserve the highest and most adequate level of education that we can offer. I 100% agree with DeVos in that higher paid, higher quality teachers who can be efficient in front of a larger number of students should be pushed. Again, her delivery was flawed, but the concept should be studied. A more reasonable way to advocate for an increase of placing high-quality teachers in larger classrooms would include:

  • Understanding that not every teacher wants 40-50 students, especially without the proper support, including a teaching assistant and real-time professional development and coaching.

  • Considering that lower aged elementary aged students function better in smaller classes. Therefore, this practice has to be age and cognitively appropriate.

  • Incentivizing teachers who take on larger class sizes and have students who perform on or beyond their expected level with higher compensation and opportunities to showcase their efforts.

  • Educating parents on the benefits of lecture style, creativity centered, larger classrooms, and their child’s teacher track record of success so they are informed of their student’s learning process.

Furthermore, although there is plenty of data that supports the benefits of small class sizes, consider the following evidence and benefits that support larger class sizes.

  • A study called Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City (National Bureau of Economic Research) indicates that class size does not correlate to effectiveness.

  • Around the world in places like Singapore, class size average is 33-35 students and they receive great feedback and perform well beyond the global average.

  • Students in larger class sizes develop better problem-solving and critical thinking skills because they are forced to demonstrate grit and perseverance due to a teacher not constantly being within reach.

  • Students also become better at teamwork and communicating with their peers as a result of larger class sizes due to the need to collaborate.

I’m fully aware I am playing devil’s advocate here and not everyone will agree, but I stand firm that the debate must occur as to how every student gets access to a highly qualified teacher who is compensated accordingly! And if we want our public education systems to improve especially in at-risk schools impacting usually black and brown as well as low-income children we must neglect status quo schooling. Seeking out high-quality educators and holding them to a higher standard and expectation is what our students deserve. It is past the time for innovative thinking and creating authentic and exceptional learning experiences in every classroom for every child. Not only do parents want this, but true equity requires every student to receive this.

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A high school science teacher with 5 classes a day, means between 200 and 250 students a semester. In large schools, like the one that I taught in, we start over with new students each semester, so you have about 4 months to know your students. How could a teacher possibly build a relationship, develop equity for all and prepare, deliver and assess learning in this population? I am an experienced, highly qualified teacher, but I would quickly slip into the inadequate category with this number of students daily, regardless of how many aides or assistants I have in the room. You may prefer your child in a class of up to 50 students with an excellent teacher, but…

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As a speaker and author, my focus is to train emerging and seasoned leaders to align strategy with equity, change and communication.

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