Thoughts on Alternatives to Class Size Reduction

by Reihan Salam

I was very impressed by Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo for having reported on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s nuanced take on class size reduction. The central problem with class size reduction is that (a) the policy hasn’t been implemented in the most cost-effective manner, i.e., it hasn’t been focused on the students who stand to benefit the most and (b) it has exacerbated the dilution of the teacher talent pool, and for that reason it has contributed to a reduction in average teacher quality.

One of the drivers of class size reduction is the fact that parents tend to prefer smaller class sizes, and the most vocal and active parents tend to be relatively affluent homeowners. So while class size reduction isn’t likely to make much of a difference for children from stable home environments, we’ve nevertheless seen significant class size reduction in non-poor school districts. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this development, particularly if the school districts in question are bearing the cost. But it does seem to represent a fairly serious misallocation of resources.

Another driver is the fact that class size reduction means hiring more teachers, and more teachers means more clout and resources for the organizations that represent teachers. This has contributed to some of the problems plaguing the compensation of teachers. The Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor has discussed the problem with what he calls “the sacrosanct salary schedule” for public school teachers, an issue we’ve discussed in this space. Vigdor has found that while the effectiveness of teachers tends to increase considerably during the first several years in the classroom, the gains diminish over time. And so he offers a valuable intervention into the thorny debate over performance-based compensation for teachers. The biggest anxiety over performance-based compensation is that it encourages gaming the system, e.g., cheating on high-stakes tests, etc. Ideally, we’d want salaries to be determined in decentralized fashion, with different schools choosing to pursue different strategies that meet the needs of their distinctive educational approaches. Realistically, this isn’t likely to happen in centralized school districts.

So Vigdor proposes an intermediate step: 

What if, rather than proposing a direct pay-for-performance system, we took the intermediate step of stopping the practice of paying rewards for credentials that have no established association with the ability to educate students? A simple case study, based on the teacher workforce in North Carolina, suggests that this policy change would return several dividends. Money currently spent on rewarding teachers for valueless credentials could be used to increase starting salaries, a policy goal espoused by nearly all interested parties, from education reformers to teachers unions. Shifting teachers’ lifetime compensation toward the beginning of their careers would make the profession more attractive to highly qualified college students. Finally, the age-earnings profile for teachers would more closely resemble the profile for other professions. Doctors and lawyers reap the full rewards of competence in their profession within 10 years of entrance. Teachers must wait three times that long, even though evidence suggests that they become fully competent in their profession just as quickly.

This approach, Vigdor suggests, would encourage retention among younger teachers and it would do a better job of rewarding the considerable gains in effectiveness that occur in the first few years. This, in turn, would tend to improve average teacher quality over time. There are, of course, obstacles to implementing this strategy. Older teachers would resist any change, which is why Vigdor’s evidence-based salary schedule would have to be phased in if it is to have any hope of taking hold. But the influence of older teachers is magnified by teachers’ unions. Moreover, phasing-in an evidence-based salary schedule would require a short-term increase in expenditures on total compensation, which would tend to crowd out class size reduction. 

Matthew Chingos and Grover Whitehurst make an important related point. If class sizes are increased, it is crucially important that school districts let go of the least effective teachers rather than on a LIFO basis:

In settings where state mandates on maximum class size are relaxed, policymakers need to bear in mind that the effect of any increase in class size will depend on how such an increase is implemented. For example, a one-student increase in the pupil/teacher ratio in the U.S. would reduce the teaching workforce by about 7 percent. If the teachers to be laid off were chosen in a way largely unrelated to their effectiveness, such as seniority-based layoffs, then the associated increase in class size might well have a negative effect on student achievement. But if schools choose the least effective teachers to let go, then the effect of increased teacher quality could make up for some or all of the possible negative impact of increasing class size.

What Chingos and Whitehurst don’t mention is that the effect of increased teacher quality might more than make up for any negative impact.

There is another way to improve average teacher quality that might prove less contentious and expensive. We’ve touted the “Gold Star Teachers” program Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks proposed for Wisconsin in “Sounding the Alarm” in the past, and it is worth revisiting:

[R]ather than seeking to compel parents or teachers, against their preferences, to accept substantially larger classes across the board, the “Gold Star Teachers” initiative—in which highly talented teachers are given the opportunity to teach more kids per class—is intended to reshuffle the incentives, improve instruction, save dollars, and create a productivity-enhancing dynamic that puts superintendents and principals in positions to better utilize their talented teachers.

Research suggests, and experience shows us, that some stellar teachers can comfortably handle three dozen students or more. While today’s value-added data systems have limitations and while student performance on reading and math assessments is not a simple proxy for teacher quality, value-added measures provide a systematic way to identify teachers whose students are consistently achieving outsized gains. And these teachers whose students register greater gains compared to their Wisconsin peers for at least two consecutive years would be eligible to participate in the Gold Star Teachers program should they so choose.

Gold Star Teachers would have the opportunity to become more productive by teaching more students per class, and would be rewarded for their increased workload even as the state pockets substantial savings. Teachers’ continued participation in the program would be made contingent on their students continuing to make larger-than-normal gains. Though hard to imagine just five years ago, enforcing such eligibility criteria is now feasible given today’s technological tools and refined data collection.

Instead of antagonizing teachers or parents, this approach would offer a powerful incentive for the most effective teachers to increase their productivity.