Let's Focus on Replicating Great Teaching Rather Than Shrinking Class Sizes

You’ve got to hand it to the teachers unions. They have so many people conditioned to call for more teachers and smaller class sizes as the leading remedy for what ails public schools. The tide slowly is turning to a greater realization of what the abundance of research shows us: namely, that the quality of the individual teacher is far more important than small differences in class sizes.

But what can policy makers do about it? Are great teachers just born that way, and we need to do more to import their natural gifts into the education system? Or are there practical skills and mechanics that teachers can learn from their peers who have achieved remarkable success in the classroom?

With plenty of teaching experience between them, authors Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion) and Steven Farr (Teaching as Leadership) make a strong case for the latter. The 12 minutes it takes to listen to the two authors’ new Education Next podcast interview with Michael Petrilli is a worthwhile investment of time for anyone truly concerned about how to make our schools better.

Separate research led by Lemov and Farr has connected successful use of certain practices and techniques — including little things like how you hand back papers to students — to better use of time and improved learning outcomes. Unfortunately, many of the techniques are not shared in the traditional education programs that train and certify teachers.

It’s going to take a change in mindset to bring us to the place where we see great teaching as a crucial facet that can be carefully replicated in many ways, rather than focusing primarily on hiring more teachers as aggregate numbers who are paid on the same scale and easily rewarded for mediocrity. I contend this “public education” is one of the most important reform projects we can undertake.

Interestingly, Colorado is one of only 10 states in which teacher hiring rates have not met or exceeded student enrollment growth over the past seven years. While Mike Antonucci demonstrates the problem of excessive teacher hiring nationwide, our state increased the K-12 teaching workforce by 5.2 percent compared to a student increase of 6.1 percent.

So I’m pleased to say the class size obsession hasn’t overtaken Colorado like it has some other states, but we can do much more to lead the way. Given economic realities, enhancing school productivity should be a dominant focus. Doing the patient hard work of ensuring all our teachers can deepen their grasp and improve their practice of valuable techniques, like those Lemov and Farr impart, should be a vital part of Colorado’s efforts to enhance educator effectiveness.