It's Not Really as Simple as More Students for Better Teachers… Is It?

Sometimes it’s the small ideas that deserve big attention. No single one of these ideas can solve all the problems and shortcomings in education, but reformers and transformers might find pleasing results from one such strategic change. That’s what we find in a newly released Fordham Institute study by Michael Hansen, “Right-sizing the Classroom: Making the Most of Great Teachers.”

What’s the result when a school shifts a few students from the weakest teacher’s classroom to the most effective teacher’s classroom? Hansen digs into years of 5th grade and 8th grade data from North Carolina to figure out how well the approach works:

The results show that relatively minor changes in the way that students are assigned to teachers can lead to significant learning gains. But the size of these gains depends on grade level, with eighth grade more promising than fifth grade. Intensively reallocating eighth-grade students—so that the most effective teachers have up to twelve more pupils than the average classroom—may produce gains equivalent to adding roughly two-and-a-half extra weeks of school (see figure ES-1). Even adding a handful of students to the most effective eighth-grade teachers (up to six more than the school’s average) produces gains in math and science akin to extending the school year by nearly two weeks or, equivalently, to removing the lowest 5 percent of teachers from the classroom….

So maybe a local school board change agent, or other policymaker, is confronted with a problem. They need to improve student achievement, but for whatever reason big changes to compensation (performance pay) or dismissal (tenure reform) are years away, at best. As a bridge to bigger changes, the leaders should find fewer obstacles to putting in place a simple solution like this one. It really may be as effective as removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers, but that doesn’t mean it stays an either/or proposition forever.

At least for eighth-graders, the outcome appears promising. Why eighth-graders more than fifth-graders? You’ve got me there. We already know that observed improvements from general class-size reductions only is seen in some cases of the early grades, but disappear altogether when it comes to older students. Maybe that provides part of the explanation.

The big focus going forward in Colorado K-12 education is the implementation of new teacher and principal evaluations. As it becomes ever so much clearer which instructors are more effective than others, schools can figure out how to pay teachers accordingly, too. (That’s just one of the better connections that can be made.) Along the way, though, shifting students on this small scale should on average produce better results overall. Combined with other strategies, it might accomplish even more.

I think the big hang-up for many, apart from the basic “it’s not fair” complaint, is how to shift existing resources to make it work. Do you give the effective teacher extra “performance pay” for taking on more students? If so, where does the money come from? What other options are there? Read more of Hansen’s paper to wrestle with his considerations of issues like these.

The bottom line? One-size-fits-all isn’t good for individual students, and it isn’t good for teachers or classrooms either. And sometimes it takes small simple ideas to start thinking “outside the box” toward a a better K-12 education system.