Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quantity or Quality

On Sunday, the Washington Post's Jay Matthews wrote his column on whether it's better to focus on class size reduction or improving teacher quality. His answer was that teacher quality has to be considered the winner.

Obviously, in the best of all possible worlds, we would recruit and develop the highest quality teachers who would then go in to teach in small classrooms. But in the zero sum game that is the budgeting process, something always has to give. The question becomes: what? (For the purpose of this post, I'm going to ignore all the other avenues for improving schools and just focus on class size vs. teacher quality.)

Matthews' conclusion that teacher quality is the bottom line needed to improve student results is something that's gaining a lot of steam across the country and makes a lot of sense. Great teachers get great results. Furthermore, as super-teacher Rafe Esquith says, "A great teacher can teach 60. A poor teacher will struggle with five." Very true. Even a small class size won't make up for someone who doesn't know what they're doing in the classroom.

But let's look a little deeper at that. The majority of teachers are not great teachers or poor teachers. The majority of teachers are average teachers. We need to be looking at what's going to best enable the average teachers in our system to become great teachers.

Class size proponents would argue that a limited class size would enable a run-of-the-mill teacher to more effectively manage a class and provide more individualized attention to the students who need it. This would then improve the level of their teaching and the students' learning.

Teacher quality advocates would say that adding to a teacher's "toolbox" would allow them to be more effective in running a class of any size. There's no subsitute for competence and expertise.

In rhetoric and theory those two sides pretty much battle it out to a draw. So let's look at reality where we're trying to maximize results on limited resources. Where should the money be spent.

The fact is that we're going to get more bang for our buck by working on teacher quality and turning average teachers into great teachers. The amount of money it takes to reduce class sizes by more than a marginal amount (and to the point where research shows it will actually make a difference) is staggering. In the best of all possible worlds where we have unlimited resources, that would be a worthwhile investment. But as long as we're in a world where we have to make choices, improving teacher quality is the road to follow.

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