In Wisconsin the state legislature remain at a total impasse over a vote on legislation that would largely strip public employees of collective bargaining. Teachers are among state employees caught in the ongoing bitter battle over the budget and union rights. The governor of Wisconsin has already announced $800 million in cuts to schools. In Wisconsin and many other cash strapped states across the country, teacher lay-offs are expected and class sizes are likely to grow … but not everyone thinks this is necessarily a bad idea. Join us to discuss what’s lost and what isn’t as class sizes expand in the K through 12 years.


  • Diane Ravitch Author, professor at New York University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
  • Leonie Haimson Executive director, Class Size Matters.
  • Eric Hanushek Senior fellow, Hoover Institution.
  • Kris Amundson Communications manager, Education Sector.
  • Kerry Sylvia High school teacher, Cardozo High School, Washington, D.C.


  • 10:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Many educators have long believed that small class sizes are critical to student achievement. But in the current economic environment, many states will be forced to lay off teachers and expand class sizes. Joining me to talk about what teacher layoffs could mean for students, Kris Amundson. She's communications manager for the Education Sector. Kerry Sylvia, she's teacher at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. Joining us from a studio at NPR in New York City, Leonie Haimson. She is executive director of Class Size Matters. And from a studio at Stanford University, Eric Hanushek. He's senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

  • 10:08:02

    MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, I do invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Before we begin the conversation with our guests, we're joined first by phone from Madison, Wis., by Diane Ravitch. She's a professor at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Welcome back, Diane. Good to have you with us.

  • 10:08:45

    MS. KRIS AMUNDSONIt's great to be with you again. Thank you.

  • 10:08:47

    REHMTeachers in Wisconsin are in the crux of the battle. Do teachers' unions matter or not?

  • 10:09:01

    PROF. DIANE RAVITCHWell, I think they matter for many reasons. First of all, because teachers need to have some professional voice, some way of shaping the environment they live in, and when working conditions are terrible, when class sizes become excessive, they need to have an organization to speak for them. But I think their most important function is at the state legislative level. When the budgets are being created, when in a time of fiscal austerity like right now, when cuts are coming down on all sides, there must be a voice for education. And if there is no organized voice for the teachers, there will be no one to speak on behalf of the schools.

  • 10:09:38

    PROF. DIANE RAVITCHAnd we see states across the country, right-to-work states, where there is no collective bargaining, where schools are being cut to the bone, where class sizes are soaring into the 40s, and in some cases, even in the 50s. And the unions really are the organized voice of education to try to stand up to make sure that educators get a decent living wage, that they have working conditions that make it tolerable to be in education. I mean, we have this bizarre situation today where our leaders talk about education reform, and we see the actual practice of education being carved away piece by piece by state legislatures.

  • 10:10:15

    REHMLet's talk for just a moment about the impact of those budget cuts on class size. Is there any extensive research on whether class size matters?

  • 10:10:32

    RAVITCHWell, there is an extensive body of research, and people argue about it. But you've got some of the leading experts on the phone right now, some of who will say it doesn't matter. But I think that there is fairly authoritative research coming from experiments in Tennessee showing that it matters a great deal, particularly in the early grades and particularly for the most vulnerable children. So when we see class sizes in the early grades rising to 25 and 28, this is bad for kids. They are getting a bad start, and this bad start is going to harm them all the way through their schooling.

  • 10:11:06

    REHMDo you think we are, through these budget cuts, really damaging the educational system in the U.S. or will it make it through?

  • 10:11:21

    RAVITCHWell, you know, we will have an education system no matter what happens, but I don't think it's going to be an improved education system. I think that with the budget cuts, we're seeing many teachers leaving education, not because their salary is being cut, but because the whole public rhetoric about education right now is so devastatingly negative. All we hear about is terrible test course, terrible teachers. Teachers can work miracles. Every teacher should be a great teacher. If we have terrible test course, then you, the current teacher, you're no good.

  • 10:11:50

    RAVITCHI've been traveling the country this past year talking to, literally, I don't know, close to 100,000 teachers at this point. And the overall feeling among America's teachers is one of the deep depression, of demoralization. And I think the reason for the tremendous response to Wisconsin is finally, teachers are standing up and saying, that's enough, we won't take this anymore. Because in Wisconsin, the issue is no longer about money. The unions here have made all the wage concessions, all the financial -- all the benefit concessions that were asked of them, and now they're being told we're going to crush your union. We're going to take your collective bargaining rights away. We're gonna wheedle them to nothing.

  • 10:12:27

    RAVITCHAnd they're standing up and saying, well, this will not happen. We cannot permit this. And now Wisconsin, Madison in particular where I am, has become a flashpoint and said to teachers across America, you know, you're not a doormat. You don't have to take this constant battering coming from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the media. And teaching is the noblest profession of all, and you have to stand up and speak up for yourselves and for your children.

  • 10:12:53

    REHMDiane Ravitch, she's professor at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She's author of the book titled "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 10:13:17

    RAVITCHThank you, Diane. It's always a pleasure to talk to you. Bye-bye.

  • 10:13:20

    REHMThank you very much. And now turning to you, Kris Amundson. First, describe for us the Education Sector.

  • 10:13:30

    AMUNDSONDiane, we're a non-partisan think tank. We're an independent group. And we take a look at education issues ranging from K-12 through higher education. I would just say that before I came to Education Sector 18 months ago, I was a state legislator in Virginia for 10 years and spent nearly a decade on the Fairfax County School Board, including two years as a chairman, so I have my time in the trenches on balancing budgets.

  • 10:14:01

    REHMTell me your view on class size.

  • 10:14:06

    AMUNDSONI think -- and I hope we'll talk about an experience that we had in Fairfax later in the hour. But class size -- there is some research, as Dr. Ravitch said, that if class sizes get small -- but it is really small. It's 15. And below 15, you do see a change in student achievement. But above that, there's a pretty wide range where the studies just show us that there isn't much change.

  • 10:14:38

    REHMHow high can you go?

  • 10:14:40

    AMUNDSONYou know, I don't know that anybody has really run those numbers. And certainly, we'd all agree that there is some kind of upper limit. But the difference between 21 and 25, for example, which is gonna send parents right to, you know, over the moon, and there just isn't any evidence that it makes big -- a big change.

  • 10:15:00

    REHMKris Amundson, communications director for Education Sector. Kerry Sylvia, as a high school teacher here in Washington, D.C., tell us about Cardozo and to what extent you believe class size makes a difference in your own experience.

  • 10:15:25

    MS. KERRY SYLVIAWell, in many ways, Cardozo is a typical urban high school that serves as a neighborhood school. We can't -- we have to serve all students. We can't select or set requirements. Twenty-five percent of our students are identified as in need of special education services, 20 percent are English language learners, over 75 percent poverty rate. And we have a wide range of ability levels in our school. In some of my classes, I have students who are at a third-grade reading or writing level.

  • 10:15:59

    REHMAnd you're teaching high school students.

  • 10:16:02

    SYLVIAI'm teaching high school students, yes. I'm a social studies teacher. So in one class, I could have a range from third-grade reading level all the way up to 12th-grade or beyond reading level and writing level.

  • 10:16:14

    REHMAnd how large your class might that be?

  • 10:16:19

    SYLVIAIt ranges. One of my classes is 27 students. I've had classes as large as 33, classes as small as 15.

  • 10:16:27

    REHMWhat difference does it make to you beyond, as Kris Amundson has just said, beyond that range of 15 on up?

  • 10:16:40

    SYLVIAIt makes a big difference. You know, because of the wide disparity in ability level, try to differentiate instruction, but students need some one-on-one work with the teacher. And even beyond the classroom, I mean, my time out of the classroom is calling homes, following up on truancy, working with other teachers. And the more students I have in a classroom, the more difficult that becomes.

  • 10:17:06

    REHMFor you, what do you believe is the maximum where you can do the most effective job as a teacher?

  • 10:17:18

    SYLVIAI think between 20 -- ideally, 20 and 25.

  • 10:17:23

    REHMAnd beyond that?

  • 10:17:25

    SYLVIAIt becomes challenging. You know, it really depends on the class. We have some students at our school who are -- whose disability is ED, emotional-disturbed student. And you put them in a classroom with more than 15 students, it becomes a real challenge. So it really depends on the class. It depends on the ability level of the students. If you have all high-functioning students in one classroom, students who have great attendance, that's a different story. But that's not the reality that we face at Cardozo. And with increasing competition in school choice, there's a high concentration of challenging students at neighborhood schools like Cardozo.

  • 10:18:01

    REHMHow do you respond to that, Kris?

  • 10:18:03

    AMUNDSONWell, I will certainly agree that one of the challenges that teachers have faced is this whole diversity in the classroom of kids with a wide variety of needs. And I do think that does play special challenges on a teacher. But I would just point out that Fairfax County now staffs its -- all of its high schools at 29 kids per class. And we have not seen a decrease in our student achievement levels.

  • 10:18:31

    REHMKris Amundson, she is communications director for Education Sector. Short break and we'll be right back.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd now we'll bring into the discussion over class size Leonie Haimson. She is executive director of Class Size Matters. And Eric Hanushek. He is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Rick Hanushek, I'll start with you. What's your thinking about class size, why it matters, if it matters? What are your thoughts?

  • 10:20:32

    MR. ERIC HANUSHEKWell, I've spent a lot of time looking at the evidence on class size. And from my standpoint, there's not much evidence that smaller classes have much effect. There might be a little...

  • 10:20:42

    REHMAnd when you talk about smaller, what do you mean by smaller?

  • 10:20:49

    HANUSHEKWell, the research evidence actually goes from about 15 to 40 kids in a class.

  • 10:20:53


  • 10:20:54

    HANUSHEKAnd what we've done for the last two decades is reduce class size without much apparent effect on achievement. We can pick up on what the prior discussions already said. Imagine having a high school class where somebody with a third grade reading level in it. That person with a third grade leaving level went to a Washington D.C. school with a small class size in elementary school and they're still at the third grade. What we found is that having an effective teacher is much, much, much more important than having a small class. So you'd always want to have a good teacher even with a large class as opposed to a mediocre teacher with a small class.

  • 10:21:39

    REHMAll right. Let's turn to Leonie Haimson. Does class size matter in your view?

  • 10:21:47

    MS. LEONIE HAIMSONAbsolutely. Excuse me. The Institute of Education Sciences, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, has found that there are only four education reforms that have been proven to work with rigorous evidence, and class size reduction is one of them. Smaller classes have been shown to lead to better student success in every way they can be measured: better test scores, fewer kids held back, more kids taking advanced placement classes in high school, more kids headed to college.

  • 10:22:17

    MS. LEONIE HAIMSONAnd, in fact, a recent reanalysis of a large-scale experiment that was done in Tennessee called the STAR experiment actually showed that kids who are in smaller classes in kindergarten were more likely to have graduated from college, have a 401 (k) 3 and to own their own home later in life. It's really one of the very few education reforms that we know have been proven to work. And I'd like to respond to Kris Amundson's point. Actually, the idea that there's some sort of threshold that has to be reached to gain benefits from class size reduction is an urban myth.

  • 10:22:54

    MS. LEONIE HAIMSONThe reason people say that is because the Tennessee STAR experiment compared kids in classes of 15 to 18 to 21 to 25. But actually, researchers who looked at the larger cohort of kids who are in classes of 21 to 25 found that the smaller class within that range, those children did better, did better in terms of outcomes as well. And many other studies since then have confirmed that class size reduction is roughly linear in its benefits -- that is, the smaller the class within any range, the better off those kids are gonna be.

  • 10:23:29

    REHMAll right. Kris, would you like to respond?

  • 10:23:32

    AMUNDSONI would, and I would like to talk about what we did in Fairfax County in the '90s, in the early '90s. We invested in small class size in first grades of our most vulnerable students. And we put a limit of 15 students to a classroom. At the end of the year, we found tremendous gains in those students, except in a very few schools, and we couldn't figure it out. And in those schools, there really wasn't much progress. When we went back and looked, what we found was that principals had taken those extra teachers, put them in the general elementary pool and simply reduced class size in the elementary school by a kid or two across the board.

  • 10:24:12

    AMUNDSONIn those classes, we saw virtually no progress, and certainly not the kind of progress we'd seen in those very small classes. So I am a believer that if we could afford to get class sizes below 15, then, you know, you'd see some progress. But that's an extraordinarily expensive proposition.

  • 10:24:31

    REHMEric Hanushek, do you want to comment?

  • 10:24:34

    HANUSHEKSure. I don't think that we should debate the evidence from past studies of class size. Now there's a longstanding debate on that. The point is, today, that we have little choice. We are faced with fiscal problems right now in most of the states. And the -- part of the way that it's coming out is, in Wisconsin, as Diane Ravitch pointed out, there, by her own words, is a dispute between the adults who are currently in the system and the kids. The real issue in class size expansion under the fiscal crisis is how do you do that?

  • 10:25:10

    HANUSHEKWho do you lay off? Our current rules suggest that you lay off the last in, last in, first out or LIFO. And then you get an average teacher who leaves, and you see very little effect from the increase in class size. On the other hand, if you made a decision on the basis of the effectiveness of teachers -- and, in fact, in increasing class size you let go of the least effective teachers -- we would have a dramatic increase in our performance of our kids. And that's where the students come in as opposed to these adults that don't want to have decisions made on the basis of effectiveness.

  • 10:25:53

    REHMAll right. Let me read to you a message posted on Facebook by Pam. And we've had several like this. She says, "I'm a retired secondary social science teacher. My smallest classes always got higher test scores. It's just logical. The more attention a student gets in the classroom, the better the achievement. It's a little unclear why the politicians and even commentators think large classes are okay. Commonsense has just flown out the window as people become more desperate." Kerry, what's your reaction?

  • 10:26:41

    SYLVIAWell, I -- yeah, I agree. Just getting back to what Mr. Hanushek had said earlier, he assumed that the third grade reading -- the student who's on a third grade reading level was a DCPS student. And part of the problem in D.C. public schools is we have a very transient student population. They come in and out. And there's a lot of reasons why -- so they may or may not have been. But there's a lot of reasons why they're at that level. And we have special education students whose learning disability prevents them to -- you know, presents challenges to them.

  • 10:27:15

    SYLVIAAnd when we have higher numbers of students in the classroom, that becomes just more of a challenge. And to say that -- there's this kind of notion out there that if we just get a great teacher in the classroom, they can overcome any obstacle. And certainly, you know, teacher effectiveness is very important, but it doesn't have to be an either or.

  • 10:27:34

    REHMAll right. And, Leonie, here's an e-mail from Ed, who says, "I went to a Roman Catholic elementary school. When they packed 40 to 50 kids in a first through third grade class early to mid-'60s, we all learned to read, write our math facts, et cetera. I don't agree that class size matters." But how do you explain the success that these nuns have with such huge early elementary class sizes, Leonie?

  • 10:28:15

    HAIMSONFirst of all, I don't know how diverse those classrooms were. I have no experience with those kinds of class sizes myself. But my husband, who went to public school in New York City back in the '60s, said class sizes were very large, and they actually learned very little. We expect much more of our students today in a much more challenging environment, with many more kids in poverty, much more inclusion in terms of special ed children in the classroom. And our teachers are really given tremendous challenges to deal with, particularly in our large urban school districts which have, by -- on average, much larger classes as well.

  • 10:28:56

    HAIMSONClass size reduction not only improves achievement for all kids, it's one of the very few education reforms that have been shown to narrow the achievement gap. And if we really care about boosting achievement among our high minority poor students, we will not increase class sizes. In fact, we will decrease class sizes. And I beg to differ with Dr. Hanushek. We do have choices as a society. First of all, there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are being thrown away on experiments and fads in the field of education that have been proven, time and time again, not to work.

  • 10:29:30

    HAIMSONFor example, teacher merit pay tied to standardized test scores, the federal government has spent a billion dollars on this in the last two years. Another study came out yesterday showing it's completely ineffective and, in fact, may have damaging effects. In New York City, we're also planning to spend half a billion dollars next year on expanding online learning, which has never been proven to work to improve student achievement or outcomes. Finally, in many of the states that are showing real fiscal distress, including New York, Wisconsin and elsewhere, we are making very deliberate choices to cut the budgets for education and cut taxes on the wealthy at the same time.

  • 10:30:12

    HAIMSONAnd to say we don't have choice in those states or in the country as a large is simply mistaking what the real issues are. If you care about kids, if you care about their outcome, you will reduce class size or keep class sizes as low as possible because it's one of the very few things we actually know work to improve outcomes for our students. And Alan Krueger, who's the former chief economist for the Treasury Department -- of the U.S. Treasury Department -- has found that the economic benefits outweigh the cost 2-1 in terms of larger salary later in life. There's another researcher at the School of Public Health at Columbia who found that the public health benefits of smaller classes outweigh almost...

  • 10:30:53

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:30:53

    HAIMSON...any public health intervention we can make.

  • 10:30:56

    REHMI do want Eric Hanushek to get in on this.

  • 10:31:01

    HANUSHEKWell, we do have choices to make, but in fiscal problems, as we have now, there's very few -- there are very choices that are the same as increasing class size by one or two students. We have these horror stories of 60 in a class, which are just, sort of, made up in terms of national numbers. But I think that the school system has to adjust to the fact that it might not get the same increases that it has gotten for 100 years. The schools have never been cut before last year except in 1933 in the middle of the depression. And I don't think that's gonna continue because we've had rapidly growing expensive schools after we adjust for inflation, and we've had virtually flat test scores that are in -- non-competitive in an international sense.

  • 10:31:59

    REHMWell -- and that's the very question I want to ask you about. Could it be that the growing class sizes and teaching to test has undermined classroom behavior, classroom ability to learn? The U.S. is not showing up well as compared to the rest of the world, Eric.

  • 10:32:29

    HANUSHEKWell, no, that can't be, Diane, because the last test were before we had any increases in class size. And for the 20 years before those tests, class sizes have been going down each and every year across the country, and yet we have not been performing. So that just doesn't hold up, that class size has anything to do, in a positive way, with improving our performance, even though we've had these dramatically reduced class sizes over the last two decades.

  • 10:33:00

    REHMKerry, do you wanna comment?

  • 10:33:02

    SYLVIAI just think the problems in education today are really complex, and a lot of people make generalizations about it and oversimplify some of the problems. You know, I know that in my classroom, when I have a larger number of students, it really does impact my ability to meet their needs. I mean, just that's how it is.

  • 10:33:25

    REHMIt's as simple as that.

  • 10:33:27

    SYLVIAIt's as simple as that. And, you know, I think we really need to make sure that we get this right because, otherwise, we're gonna be sitting here in another three years talking about how do we fix education.

  • 10:33:36

    REHMKerry Sylvia, she is a high school teacher here at Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many callers waiting. We'll go first to Chapel Hill, N.C. and to Leah. (sp?) Good morning to you.

  • 10:34:01

    LEAHGood morning.

  • 10:34:02

    REHMHi, there.

  • 10:34:03

    LEAHI just wanted to make a comment about -- I've been teaching for five years. I'm a very enthusiastic teacher, and I love my job. I love the kids. But the conditions of teaching in public school have driven me out, and I am leaving. This is my last year of teaching in a public school.

  • 10:34:23

    REHMTell me why.

  • 10:34:25

    LEAHWell, number one, class size. This year, my class has been okay as far as the number of students. But as long as I've been teaching, the amount of inclusion and the diversity of the -- from kids that have very little abilities to read to very advanced students all in one class with large numbers, and then pressure of the data collection and the test scores, it's just -- it's too much. And as a teacher and as all the teachers that I know, the number one thing that we feel is you will feel like you've never gotten your job done. No matter how hard you work, there's no way you can do it at 100 percent.

  • 10:35:07

    REHMAnd are you saying that that's directly connected to class size?

  • 10:35:14

    LEAHIt's both. I mean, it's just like it's everything. And then -- and the pay, you know? We know we're going into it with the low pay, but I am -- I'm married. I have two -- you know, my income plus my husband's, and we -- I can afford to be a teacher. But a lot of my colleagues who are single, they have children of their own, might be, you know, single moms...

  • 10:35:39


  • 10:35:40

    LEAH...can't afford to be teachers.

  • 10:35:41

    REHMAll right. And Kris Amundson, I know you'd like to comment.

  • 10:35:45

    AMUNDSONWell, let's talk about the realities of school budgets because I think what Leah is saying does, I think, reflect on the kinds of choices school boards have to make. There is going to be a finite pool of money in most communities. Now, I'll just give you one example. In Fairfax, if we were to adjust class size by one kid, it would be a $20 million hit. Class size is one of the most expensive things that you can do because 85 percent of school budgets are personnel costs. So in a very real sense, Leah, school boards are faced often with the tough choice of giving teachers raises or cutting class size because there just isn't the money to do both.

  • 10:36:30

    REHMWhat about Leonie's point that, in fact, state governments have other choices that they could make and looking first and foremost at school budgets is really undermining our entire society?

  • 10:36:50

    AMUNDSONWell, I will certainly spent 20 years as a huge advocate of public school funding and, no one, I think, is a stronger advocate than I am. But what I also know is that at the state level, states were very hard hit by this recession. Part of the reason we're having this conversation this year is because the stimulus money ran out. That kind of gave us a two-year cushion. States have raised taxes by about $40 billion in the last two years.

  • 10:37:18

    REHMKris Amundson, she is communications director for Education Sector. We'll take a short break. We have callers in Kentucky, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma waiting. We'll get to you in just a moment.

  • 10:40:03

    REHMAnd we'll go back to the phones to Tulsa, Okla. and to Tracy. Good morning to you.

  • 10:40:12

    TRACYGood morning. I was calling -- I'm actually a high school teacher and I have seen -- the comments I've heard where the last speaker who just said adding one student to a classroom would save so much money. Over my 12 years as a teacher, I had only seen one student added, but every year is one more student and one more student. And the difference in performance between my classes with the student load of 23 or 24 or 25 is so much vast than just three more at 28. And there are so many more things that go into it than just student class size, which you all have kind of touched on.

  • 10:40:56

    TRACYBut part of the other problem that also seems to be being missed here is also, you know, we need to have great teachers. But I can't tell you the two district -- school district I've worked in, it's not just class size, it's -- well, we need to have a great coach as well, or we need to have -- and so, districts are making the choice of rather sending...

  • 10:41:19


  • 10:41:19

    TRACY...more money on paying a coach or this than having a great teacher with maybe one or two more students in them.

  • 10:41:27

    REHMInteresting. Kerry Sylvia, you believe that this is actually attack on teachers.

  • 10:41:37

    SYLVIAWell, I think it's part of a larger movement out there to put more and more of the burden of student success on teachers, and certainly teachers do play a large role in student success. But, you know, we've heard repeatedly, certainly here in D.C., that if a child doesn't learn, it's the teacher's fault. And what that does is it takes the burden off the school system and the city to provide the necessary resources. I mean, the same schools that have the most challenging student populations, like Cardozo, were also under-resourced. And our current chancellor was quoted in the Post a couple of weeks ago saying that 40 kids are better served by one highly effective teacher than splitting that class into two with 20, and one led by one mediocre teacher. And like I said before, why does it have to be either or

  • 10:42:28


  • 10:42:29

    SYLVIA...a great teacher in a classroom or smaller class sizes? But, again, if you take a great teacher and you put 40 kids in that classroom, it's going to definitely impact their ability to be as effective.

  • 10:42:43

    REHMLeonie, you might wanna comment.

  • 10:42:46

    HAIMSONYeah, absolutely. I think the best teachers in the world cannot do their best with those kinds of class sizes. And I'd also like to comment on the issue of out-of-classroom positions. We've seen an explosion, especially in New York City and many other places in the country, of out-of-classroom positions at the expense of classroom teachers. Here in New York City, under Joel Klein, we saw an increase of 10,000 out-of-classroom positions and a decline in 1,600 generally led classroom teachers. We've seen data coaches, learning specialists, all the rest. Kris Timken, (sp?) who is a middle school principal in New Jersey, actually reduced class sizes across the board without adding any extra positions by redeploying out-of-classroom positions to the classroom.

  • 10:43:29

    HAIMSONAnd the kinds of responses you're getting from teachers today are not at all unusual. In survey after survey, if you ask teachers across the country what is the number one, best way to improve their effectiveness, they say reduce class size. And with respect to our teachers, we will listen to them, and we will do what we know is right for the kids.

  • 10:43:48

    REHMLeonie, help me to understand what those out-of-classroom teachers actually do. Why are they hired as opposed to in-classroom teachers?

  • 10:44:04

    HAIMSONWell, we've seen a lot of new small schools in New York City, so we've seen an addition of about 400 new small schools, each of which needs their own principal, assistant principal, a family or parent coordinator, a school secretary, a whole list. Plus, we've seen an addition of people called data coaches who are supposed to help teachers sit around analyzing test scores because the whole buzz word now is how do you differentiate instruction, and you're supposed to do that by analyzing test scores. Whereas, we know the only real way to differentiate instruction is to give teachers small enough classes so that they can meet each individual student's needs.

  • 10:44:45

    HAIMSONWe've also been talking a little bit about the international comparisons. What we've seen is that the countries like Finland, who best us in many of the categories on the international test called the PISAs, turned around their educational system in the 1970s when they reduced class sizes. And that's the country that's most comparable to ours. We believe very strongly that there's -- that it should not be a dichotomy, that -- between good teachers and small classes. As I said, the best teachers cannot do their best with the kind of classes we give them, particularly in large urban centers. And it's one reason we have such high teacher attrition rates, a 50 to 60 percent or more after five years.

  • 10:45:28

    HAIMSONAnd the real issue facing our teachers in terms of teacher quality is those high teacher attrition rates. And if we wanna bring them down, we'll listen to some of the teachers, like the one from North Carolina, and we will give them reasonable working conditions where they can get a chance of success and that means reducing their class size.

  • 10:45:45

    REHMRick Hanushek, you might wanna comment.

  • 10:45:49

    HANUSHEKI would. It's a little late in the show to bring in data. But the simple fact is that class sizes nationally have fallen over the last 20 years. They have not risen. Secondly, since 1960, per pupil spending has over almost quadrupled after we adjust for inflation, so we've been consistently putting in more money. The thing that we now know, though, is that there are huge differences in teacher effectiveness. So bringing up Finland, if we could replace the bottom five to eight percent of our teachers in terms of effectiveness with just an average teacher -- and an average teacher is quite good in our schools -- if we could replace the bottom five to eight percent with an average teacher, our national achievement would rise to the level of Finland.

  • 10:46:40

    HANUSHEKAnd that's worth, by calculations of the economics, $100 trillion in current value, $100 trillion compares to $1 trillion in stimulus funds. So we've got this sitting on the table if we could address the issue of teacher effectiveness.

  • 10:46:58


  • 10:46:59

    HAIMSONYeah. I think there is no objective, fair and reliable way to identify what is an effective teacher. The people like Dr. Hanushek would like to do it purely by test scores, but we've seen that's a highly unreliable way to do it. And our best teachers sometimes get low -- you know, don't get great value added because of the challenging population or the year to year statistical variation. Another expert on Finland, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, was asked, what would Finnish teachers do if they were being rated on the basis of their students' standardized test scores? And he said, they would call a general strike. They would walk out of schools. They would not at all even countenance the kind of disrespect for their profession that is now being heaped upon teachers in this country.

  • 10:47:47

    HAIMSONIn Finland, they have, again, no standardized test. They trust teachers. They give them good working conditions. They give them good salaries and they let them go. And that's why they've achieved great results.

  • 10:48:00

    REHMKerry Sylvia, I'd like to ask you about your own experience as a teacher. Do you have enough money to provide for the students in your classroom? Is the class so diverse in its ability to learn that your time is totally divided? Do you provide materials yourself?

  • 10:48:30

    SYLVIAYes. The only thing we're given is a textbook. There's no curriculum. There's no other resources. I've written grants to get other resources. But, you know, some of the speaker said earlier that decisions are made in terms of where money is being spent. In DCPS, a lot of money is going towards test prep. Tutors have come in, we've had Saturday academies, pulling students out. And it's not the neediest students -- the students who are below basic, the ones who are low functioning -- it's the students who are at they call the bubble kids, the one who are at the cusp of proficiency. So they're one or two questions away from getting to the proficient, which would increase AYP scores.

  • 10:49:15

    SYLVIAAnd so you see time and time again where money is being misspent and not really addressing the needs of the students. I mean, we have students that have a host of problems that they bring into the classroom from the outside. We don't have the services that we need. We have students coming in out of, I mean, it's a small population, but students coming in and out of the juvenile justice system. We've asked repeatedly from the city, if you could put a parole officer in the building one day a week just to meet and ensure that those students are coming to class. That was at Cardozo several years ago, and it worked well. I mean, just to check in with the students and to make sure that the students know that, you know, there was dialogue going...

  • 10:49:56

    REHMSomebody watching, sure.

  • 10:49:57

    SYLVIAYeah, and reinforcing the work of the attendance officer and the teachers, and we can't get that. I mean, just basic resources to help the teachers and the school meet the needs of this challenging population.

  • 10:50:10

    REHMWhy don't you leave?

  • 10:50:13

    SYLVIAI've thought about that. (laugh) I'm really loyal to Cardozo. Even like within DC Public Schools, there's a difference in resources and schools, but I'm really committed to Cardozo. I live in the neighborhood. And, you know, despite the challenges, we have a lot of students that wanna learn who, you know, deserve a quality education. And, you know, that's what's keeping me there...

  • 10:50:36

    REHMBut how do those students react to you as their teacher?

  • 10:50:43

    SYLVIAThey're, you know, they really appreciate my sincerity. I think that students know teachers who are concerned, who are there on the long run. I've had students who come back and who come and visit the school. I think that's really important. You know, this -- we're talking about the constant churning of teachers, and we wanna have -- ensure a great teacher in every classroom. But when we keep burdening the teachers with more and more challenges, that's gonna prevent us from really ensuring that each classroom has a great teacher in it.

  • 10:51:21

    REHMKris Amundson.

  • 10:51:23

    AMUNDSONYou know, I'm just shocked to hear people say that we shouldn't ever measure how kids do. I remember in Fairfax County, when I first came on the school board, I represented the most diverse part of the county. And we had SAT scores that were not something that anybody was proud of. But you see, the school system could hide it, because on average, when you factored in, when you averaged in McLean or Langley High School, so there was need, as far as the school system saw, to deal with those kids in my schools.

  • 10:52:03

    AMUNDSONNow, one of the things that I would have to say that this -- what we call disaggregating, which is looking at subgroups -- has done is it's forced Fairfax County, I think, early to deal with the fact that we have a very diverse student population. And I would say that that's a big reason that student performance, even though Fairfax -- people may be surprised to learn -- is now a majority/minority school district. And yet, our student performance is held constant, I think, because we recognize that we had to meet the needs of every kid, and we couldn't let averages.

  • 10:52:37

    REHMAnd you're listening...

  • 10:52:38

    HAIMSONI don't get it.

  • 10:52:38 "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead, Leonie.

  • 10:52:42

    HAIMSONI'm sorry. I don't -- I didn't hear anybody said -- say on this show that we shouldn't measure how kids do. What we are against as parents, and I'm one of the founding members of a new national organization called Parents Across America, is the incredible overemphasized -- overemphasis right now on standardized test scores compared to everything else. And we feel that it's degrading the quality of education in schools across the country. Right now, there are many, many school districts, and in fact, this federal government, which is pushing something called Merit Pay, which is paying teachers on the basis of their standardized test scores.

  • 10:53:16

    HAIMSONStudy after study shows it doesn't work, in fact has negative results, and yet we're wasting millions of dollars on it. We're also stigmatizing schools with a lot of high-need students and saying they have to shut down on the basis of their test scores or fire half their staff, which no study shows actually leads to benefit for those kids. We've seen an explosion of millions of dollars, as the DC teacher said, spent on testing, on test prep materials, incredible time played -- spent in the classroom on that and no better results. In fact, our schools are turning into test prep factories. And this is what we oppose. We don't oppose standardized testing. We oppose the emphasis on standardized test to the exclusion of everything else.

  • 10:53:58

    REHMAll right. I want to get one last word from each of you. Rick Hanushek, what would be the one thing that you would propose to improve outcomes in the nation's schools?

  • 10:54:17

    HANUSHEKThe only thing that we know how to do is to pay attention to whether students are learning or not, and that means paying attention to whether individual teachers are, in fact, increasing the knowledge of students. It's extraordinarily important for the future of our country that we improve our schools. And we can't do it by indirect means like taking one student out of each classroom.

  • 10:54:41

    REHMKris Amundson.

  • 10:54:42

    AMUNDSONI would just build on what Rick has to say. I think that ensuring that we have the best possible teachers in the classroom, and then giving them the support, and certainly the respect that they need and deserve is the most important thing we can do.

  • 10:54:56


  • 10:54:58

    HAIMSONI believe that we should be supporting and respecting our teachers, and part of that respect is listening to what they say, which is that overwhelmingly, the best way to improve their effectiveness is to reduce class size. We should also be listening to parents who are the primary stakeholders. And they agree with teachers that we need smaller classes if we're going to give our kids a real chance to succeed in life.

  • 10:55:20

    REHMAnd to you, Kerry.

  • 10:55:23

    SYLVIAI'll just say that we need to be really careful, moving forward. I mean, there's a lot of schools like Cardozo, who face a lot of challenges. And we can't oversimplify it to saying getting a great teacher in the area is gonna be the difference. I mean, our students need more, not less.

  • 10:55:38

    REHMWhat do they need more of?

  • 10:55:40

    SYLVIAThey need more support. They need more intervention. They need, I mean, we need interventions at all levels, elementary and high school, so that we can really meet the needs. When they graduate, they're really prepared to succeed.

  • 10:55:54

    REHMHow involved are you to with the parents of the students you teach?

  • 10:56:00

    SYLVIAI'm actively involved in Cardozo's PTSA. I've been -- help reigniting it. We don’t have a lot of parental involvement, and that's a huge problem at Cardozo and many schools like Cardozo.

  • 10:56:12

    REHMAround the country.

  • 10:56:13

    SYLVIAAround the country.

  • 10:56:14

    REHMThat is a problem you've got so many parents working or simply not able to pay attention. Would that make a huge difference in your work?

  • 10:56:28

    SYLVIAIt definitely would. I mean, we have students who -- some of them look to the teachers for advice. I mean, I'm advising students on how to eat, all sorts of things that go beyond, you know, teaching them about history and government.

  • 10:56:43

    REHMKerry Sylvia, she is a teacher here in Washington. Kris Amundson is with Education Sector. Leonie Haimson is Class Size Matters. And Erick Hanushek is at the Hoover Institution. Thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:07

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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