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Ellis and Hobby on class size limits

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby hit all the high points in writing about the 22:1 class size limit and the effects we’d see if it were lifted.

The simple truth is that the 22-1 ratio has been on the books for a quarter-century because it works. In fact, despite the rhetoric of those trying to jettison this cornerstone of Texas’ school reform, study after study has proven that smaller class sizes lead to better results. The reason is simple: Smaller classes give teachers more one-on-one time with students and allow them to create more customized instruction and assignments to meet individual students’ needs. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Education concluded that smaller classes in early grades have significant positive effects through grade eight and help to close the achievement gap between low- and high-achieving students. The more kids in a class, the more difficult it becomes for teachers to know their students better and recognize problems and special needs early.

The impact of replacing the 22-1 limit with a 22-class-size average would be immediate and touch every family with a child in elementary school. Undoubtedly, many kindergarten through fourth-grade classes would grow significantly, as some classes, particularly those with special needs students, are notably smaller than 22. In order words, one class could have 10 school kids, while another could be jammed to the gills with 34 students, yet the school would meet the requirements of the “reform.” Is that what we really want for our children?

Eliminating 22-1 would likely force almost 12,000 teachers to lose their jobs. With Texas’ unemployment rate already higher than 8 percent, the loss of such a dramatic number of jobs would be felt in communities throughout the state. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that only the so-called “bad teachers” would be the ones given pink slips. Changing 22-1 is about budget savings first and foremost, so the incentive will be to lay off the more experienced, higher paid educators.

The truth is school districts truly struggling with the 22-1 limit can already request a waiver from the Texas Education Agency. Some 3,000 waivers have been granted, while only five requests have been rejected since the law was implemented in 1984.

I’ve written about this several times now – see here for some previous links – so while there’s nothing new here, it’s worth repeating. The main thing I want to say again is that if those who are pushing to raise the class size limits are so convinced that it will have little to no effect on student performance, they should back their belief by creating a condition that would void their legislation in the event performance did backslide. What do you suppose are the odds of that happening?

To be fair and balanced, via Ezra Klein here’s Bill Gates advocating for larger class sizes in some cases.

We know that of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students.

Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.

To flip the curve, we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.

To this end, our foundation is working with nearly 3,000 teachers in seven urban school districts to develop fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement. Research teams are analyzing videos of more than 13,000 lessons – focusing on classes that showed big student gains so it can be understood how the teachers did it. At the same time, teachers are watching their own videos to see what they need to do to improve their practice.

Our goal is a new approach to development and evaluation that teachers endorse and that helps all teachers improve.


Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets – and one of the most unchallenged – is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same.

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

Should they succeed in coming up with a universally-accepted method for “fair and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness that are tied to gains in student achievement”, then I think this idea will be worth considering. That strikes me as being far easier said than done. And it must be noted that the Gates Foundation’s track record in education reform is spotty, so a certain amount of skepticism is warranted. In addition, as Dana Goldstein points out, class size is about more than just test scores.

Since small class sizes alone don’t ensure high achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests, it might make sense to argue that maintaining small classes should not be a priority during lean economic times. The problem is that American parents are concerned not only with their children’s test scores, but also with their day to day experiences at school. Parents want their children to have meaningful personal relationships with educators–the sorts of life-changing experiences many of us remember fondly when we think back on our favorite teachers, whether they helped us score higher on a chemistry exam or just got us through a difficult time at home.

Well, yeah. There’s a reason why colleges, in particular private colleges, harp endlessly on student/faculty ratios and classes being taught by actual professors and not graduate assistants. If it means something at that level, it surely means something at the elementary and secondary levels, too.

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  1. Jay says:

    Let’s remember that 22-1 applies only to the elementary level, where studies show it makes a huge difference. Smaller classes work at the elementary level. The studies say that it has little effect in older grades, particularly high school–where teacher quality plays a much greater role. Gates spent billions on the idea that smaller schools and classes make a difference at high school levels. He has since changed that position. Hobby and Ellis are 100% correct on what could happen if 22-1 changed.

  2. I have taught in elementary, middle school and high school. Since the youngest regular class room grade I taught was 5th I’ve had mostly 25 up to 37 students in my classes. The 37 student class was in 9th grade and was much more difficult even in high school. Grades 1-4 should stay at about 22-1 because the students require much more individual attention and are learning basic skills. The real reading, writing, and basic math skills are taught in grades one through four. We need to keep class size where it is in these grades. I would like for every legislator with a degree in anything to try to teach a class of 30 first, second, third, or fourth grade students without paraprofessional help or another teacher in the room and have them (the legislators) evaluated on the progress made by that class with a standardized test after six weeks. They would learn a lot. Whether they were able to teach the students or not is another question entirely.