Clinton Errs in Politicizing the Issue of Class Sizes

This piece appeared in the Baltimore Sun and in Education Week
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Sociologist James S. Coleman once pointed out that policy makers often use research on education to legitimize, not to guide, their policies. Or, as one author wrote about an ideological opponent, "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts -- for support rather than illumination."

While policy makers aren't the only ones who conveniently ignoreuncomfortable facts and statistics, it is dangerous when they craft publicpolicy on the basis of cherry-picked research. Their uninformed mandatescan force conformity on millions of people in one fell swoop.

Reviewing the history of education reveals that policies that are adaptedduring a crisis, real or imagined, sometimes remain with us for decades, ifnot centuries.

President Clinton has been leaning on "recent research" to support his planto reduce class sizes. The truth is that the research Mr. Clinton hasn'tcited should make serious researchers suspicious that he merely sought outresearch to match his conclusions.

University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek examined 277 separatepublished studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-sizeaverages on student achievement. Only 15 percent suggested that there is a"statistically significant" improvement in achievement, 72 percent found noeffect at all, and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negativeeffect on achievement.

If the president doesn't trust that research, he can consult the U.S.Department of Education. Although U.S. students trail other students ininternational testing, U.S. classrooms have an average class size of 23students, incredibly few compared with the averages of 49 in South Korea,44 in Taiwan, and 36 in Japan.

We shouldn't forget that average class size in U.S. schools dropped from 30in 1961 to 23 in 1998, without any improvement in standardized-test scores.

Just as bad money drives out good, the president's plan to hand out moneyfor reduced class sizes will drive out alternative approaches. Far too manyteachers are ignorant of the subjects they're teaching and are aneducational liability, no matter how small their classes.

As the director of one private school recently said, "We believe that apoor teacher can't even teach five students -- and a good teacher can teacha hundred."

About one-third of public school teachers lack majors or minors in thesubjects they teach. The more advanced the subject, the greater thepercentage of unqualified teachers. Will inner-city schools, where half theteachers lack a major or minor in their subjects, be helped by more of thesame kinds of teachers produced by our colleges of education?

While educators have long pooh-poohed the idea that one must be a master ofone's subject to teach it, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation study, "BetterTeachers, Better Schools," found that students whose teachers have collegedegrees in math, or have been specifically certified to teach math, scoresignificantly higher on standardized tests than students whose teachers didnot specialize.

Mr. Clinton, of course, says he is focusing on teacher quality, too, butthe Fordham study points out that approaches focusing on inputs (coursestaken, requirements met, time spent, activities engaged in) rather thanoutputs (student achievement) will be counterproductive. Because not eventhe leader of the free world can mandate knowledge, he is seeking to decreethe appearance of competence by requiring teaching certificates.

Pronouncements coming from the political leadership of federal departmentsare notorious for serving the interests of the party in the White House.

The Education Department itself has flip-flopped on the issue since Mr.Clinton decided he wanted class sizes reduced. In 1988, the departmentconcluded that reducing class sizes would be expensive and probably "awaste of money and effort."

The Clinton administration's reversal of that policy shows why there's adanger in the federal government using suspect research to supporteducation policy initiatives. Education Week recently noted that federalmoney pays for 60 percent to 75 percent of all research on educationconducted nationwide.

How likely is it that federal research would show that Mr. Clinton'sclass-size initiative is a waste of money and effort, especially with theEducation Department's office of educational research and improvementcoming up for reauthorization soon?

The political battle over reducing class size is sure to continue; howgreat a role research will actually play is a different question, and onethat should worry researchers. There is a lot of solid research warning usthat reducing class sizes will just be education's latest fad embraced bypolicy makers.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr., is a staff writer at the Cato Institute in Washington.