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Schools Tested By Budget Cuts Learn New Strategies

The size of classes in schools around the country is growing. Half the districts responding to a recent poll say they are increasing class size because of budget pressures. Many school officials fear this will hurt students.

But some education reformers say there are ways to boost class size and save money at the same time.

"Identify the most highly effective teachers in a particular district and think about assigning a few more students to each of their classrooms."

Marguerite Roza analyzes school spending for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She's been watching districts deal with tight budgets through across-the-board cuts and other desperation moves.

Roza says she's worried that schools view tight spending limits as a lose-lose proposition.

"The idea that money has no flexibility prevents districts from making some choices early on that would help them in the long run," she says.

Roza is pushing for adoption of a number of efficiency measures that would help schools, even when fatter budgets return.

One suggestion is to create a rigorous teacher evaluation system so schools know which teachers are most effective. Roza says it would allow districts to increase the size of some classes.

"If there is a trade-off between higher teacher quality or higher class sizes, then we are better off going with higher teacher quality," she says.

How Class Size Affects Learning

Research on class size is complicated. There's evidence that smaller classes can help learning, but only if you bring the numbers down to fewer than 17 students.

"If somebody says they want to raise class size, they're doing it because they want to cut the budget, not because it's actually going to help children."

That's a number most districts can only dream of. And when you already have 25 or 30 kids in a class, there's reason to believe that small increases might not matter.

Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of schools for the District of Columbia, now heads the advocacy group "Students First."  She says that with the right preparation, bigger classes can be an effective way to save money.

"The way that I think would make sense is to identify the most highly effective teachers in a particular district, and think about assigning a few more students to each of their classrooms," Rhee says.

But representatives for teachers groups say this is all a smokescreen.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, says that "if somebody says they want to raise class size, they're doing it because they want to cut the budget, not because it's actually going to help children."

Many teachers say its common sense: larger classes mean students get less one-one-one attention, and the teacher has more work. And Weingarten says, plenty of parents agree.   

"Teachers and parents will tell you that the reason they want smaller class sizes is so they can differentiate instruction," to deal with the fact that some kids need special help for learning problems or language differences.

Experimenting To Reduce Costs

Some schools are experimenting with other ways to reduce personnel costs, without necessarily raising class sizes.

Rocketship Education has three charter schools in California.

Founder John Danner says his schools save money by putting even the youngest kids into a learning lab for one period a day. There, they get carefully guided computer-based instruction, and are supervised by a teacher's aide.

Danner says, at any given time, he only needs three kindergarten teachers instead of four, "because the fourth group is in learning lab, so you don't need a teacher for them."

Danner says part of the savings goes into extensive career development for teachers, so they can be more effective.

Although bigger class sizes can be a hard sell to parents, some education reformers say parents may embrace this idea as preferable to cutting art classes, or raising fees.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.