School Founder Says Class Size Doesn't Matter

Small class size is thought to be a ticket to classroom success. Some states require schools, by law, to limit the number of students assigned to one teacher. But Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive of the Success Charter Network, argues that formula doesn't guarantee a good education.

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For many years, teachers, parents, and a raft of policy experts held up class size as a major factor in educational success. Some places now regulate class size by law. There are different numbers in different places for different age groups, but no more than 25. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Eva Moskowitz disputed the ideal of the small. She argued that smaller class size can come at much too high a price.

We want to hear from the teachers in our audience. How much does class size matter; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can also find a link to her op-ed there.

Eva Moskowitz joins us from our bureau in New York. She's founder and CEO of the Success Charter Network, a collection of seven charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx. And it's nice to have you with us today.

Ms. EVA MOSKOWITZ (Founder and CEO, Success Charter Network): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And that's the argument we hear so often. The fewer students a teacher has, the more time he or she will be able to spend with them. As a result, education will improve.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: Well, that's a rather blunt instrument for thinking about the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom, particularly at a time of vast economic woes. So we're living in a world where we're talking about teacher layoffs; we're talking about cutting art and music, things near and dear to any parent and teacher's heart. In North Carolina, a school - the second highest-ranking school in the state is being closed because of budgetary woes.

And in these dire times, we have to really think, what really matters to the quality of teaching and learning? And I would argue that it goes far beyond exactly how many students. Whether you have 23 or 24 students or 25, you still need to be able to pay teachers exceedingly well. You still need - if you're going to teach art, you need to have paint. Otherwise, what's the point? Teachers need copy paper. There are a whole series of choices that we have to make. We have to prioritize what is important to us.

CONAN: And so you apply cost benefit analysis?

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: I do. I don't think we can be ostriches, with our heads in the sand. We have to figure out what is it that we want. And I would argue that the most important thing is that we have principals who are really talented, and not burdened by all the non-instructional things they have to do. If they have to spend all their time worrying about the elevator that is being built in their building, they're not going to be able to worry about the quality of teachers.

If we're not able to attract really talented and effective teachers, and give them the professional development they need to get better, we're not going to have great schools. If we don't have the money to have the books that we need for the children - and I would argue, in this era of high-stakes testing, we've got to make sure that the kids still go on field trips; they still go out and about in the world. And that costs money. So we've got to weigh, what are our priorities? And I'm arguing that small class size is by no means the only priority.

CONAN: And you argue that in fact, because allocations are provided per number of students in your schools, adding one or two students above the minimum of 25 - well, that actually results in very positive factors for you.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: It really does. And our teachers are so appreciative to have the supplies that they need. You'll hear art teachers talking about how great it is that they can design an art project, and get all the supplies they need, to have kids engaged in a creative exercise with the materials that they need.

We also are big believers in technology - smartly used. So I talk about, in the article, how having a Kindle with e-books is so cheap, relatively speaking. And it not only allows kids to get books with an immediacy, but it really increases the volume that kids are able to read. We're a Title I school. And so for us, having access to those books is incredibly important to our kids and families.

CONAN: Yet you're involved in charter schools so effectively, you're coming on to a situation that is a blank slate, a de novo. You can design a class size that optimizes things for you. What if you're already in a public school and you've got 27, 28, 29 kids per class?

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: Well, you know, there are other factors that are inhibiting our school design, and not allowing us to design schools around the needs of children. I have spoken many, many times about the union contracts, and the way in which they limit our ability to have school designs that I think work for teaching and learning. So it's not just class size. There are a whole bunch of restrictions that are inhibiting.

But I would argue that these laws - and you've got them in New York, in Florida, in many other states - that actually mandate what the class size must be. And those were laws that were lobbied for by the teachers' union.

And unfortunately, you know, many politicians - just thinking it makes sort of intuitive sense that passing a law where you can only have 20 kids in a class, it sounds very good; it's great for running campaigns, and so forth. But it actually takes away the principals' and the teachers' ability to be nimble and to say, well, you know what? This year, why don't we have 24 kids in a class. And that would allow us to pay for an assistant teacher. Or that would allow us to raise teachers' salaries. Or that will allow us to get all the supplies that our kids need to be really, really engaged and productive.

CONAN: We're talking with Eva Moskowitz, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, "The Costs of Small Class Size."

We want to hear from teachers. How important is that; 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Lisa, Lisa with us from Cassidy in Michigan.

LISA (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks so much for taking my call. My teeth are just on edge hearing this, because it seems like if we ever have an expert - any time we have an expert that goes out there and hints at all that class size doesn't matter, it's giving the green light for our powers that be to load our classes.

I've had various size classes in my 11 years of teaching, and all my fellow teachers that I've talked to about it agree that there is a point where we see an obvious difference. And it's right around 28, 30 students for us - I'm in middle school - that just a few students, in that range, makes a huge difference -with the amount of time that you have to spend on classroom discipline. And it really, really does make a difference. And...

CONAN: So you're saying there's a tipping point, Lisa.

LISA: There is a definite tipping point. And I think it depends on the age of the students and probably on the type of classroom as well, whether it's, you know, an art class versus a math class - maybe make a difference. I've taught math, science, language arts. And now I'm in an everything fifth grade.

And it's just - it really bothers me because, like I said, it gives a green light whenever some expert says it doesn't matter about class size. And I know she's saying other things are more important, but it does matter about class size. And it just really gets me.

CONAN: Eva Moskowitz?

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: Well, I'm not saying that there's no point at which it doesn't matter. Obviously, having a kindergarten class with 100 kids is absurd. The question is - take the Florida law. It mandates 18 or fewer kids. I would argue that...

CONAN: That's for kindergarten.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: That's for kindergarten, correct. I would argue that, as a teacher, if you have to choose between 18 kids in a class, no supplies, lower salaries, no assistant teachers, no field trips and so forth, any great teacher is going to want a few more kids in their class. They're going to want access to great classroom-management training.

And so I don't even believe that - sort of all teachers think one way. I think teachers actually haven't been allowed to participate in the debate about what really matters in the classroom. And I think what matters to teachers, you can have one disruptive kid in a class of 18, and you're still frazzled. It's really having an environment, and having the support from school leadership, to help you manage the kids you have and the academic learning that goes on in your classroom.

CONAN: But would you agree with Lisa that in middle school, there is a tipping point of around 28, 29, 30 - which it is counterproductive?

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: I don't think it's there. I do think that - having taught middle-schoolers myself, I do think that, you know, you don't want 50 or 60 kids in a class, unless you have them working on technology and digital learning. I think that if I had to make the choice between 32 and 34 kids, it would depend on what I would get in the bargain.

In other words, if I could take my kids to trips across the country, and I could hire a tutor to help them in math, those are the trade-offs that we have to be looking at. It's not - if you think that we're not making choices when we invest in small class sizes, you're not being realistic. There are things we cannot do if we reduce class size.

CONAN: Lisa?

LISA: I understand that. I just think that she's toeing a dangerous line if anywhere in what she says, it can be construed as class size doesn't matter. Because then it turns into a good teacher can teach any size class, and it just gets - it gets bigger and bigger. And it's just a very dangerous statement and - because people will pick and choose out of her statements what they want to justify what they're doing to the teachers. And we're having so much done to us; that's just one more thing.

CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: This email, also, from Nancy in Portland, Oregon: If I have 36 bright, well-behaved kids in my classroom, quality teaching and learning happens. If I have a mix of skill levels with a few behavior issues, a class of 36 is less successful - so various people saying, it depends.

We're talking with Eva Moskowitz about her op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post, "The Costs of a Small Class Size."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Paula, Paula with us from New York City.

PAULA (Caller): Hi. I'm a former DOE teacher and also, I've worked at a charter school. I'm now an administrator. And I actually have, I believe - I'm in quite agreement with Ms. Moskowitz.

I don't actually think that class size is nearly as important as the quality of the teacher. I think if schools are invested in supporting their teachers and creating highly managed classrooms that use effective classroom management, the class size is not nearly as important as the teachers understanding whatever they need to do to make kids successful.

From my own classroom experience, I know that regardless of class size, once I felt like I knew my kids and knew what my kids needed, having a larger class actually allowed my kids to learn more - about diverse experiences, about different books that they were reading.

So I think the push towards constantly having smaller classes, and constantly trying to keep kids in small groups, is actually having negative consequences for student learning.

CONAN: New York City is one of those places with laws on the size of classes.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: It is. In New York, for Title I schools...

PAULA: Yes.

Mr. MOSKOWITZ: ...in K through three, it has to be under 20. And I think that what we really need to do is focus on helping teachers, whatever class size they have - helping them manage the classroom better, and giving them support on curriculum and really, taking away some of the tasks. So if you have a special ed teacher, she or he could spend all of his or her time filling out paperwork rather than the really critical work of instructing one's students.

At our schools, we try and support our teachers not only by training them in classroom management, but having a business manager at the school; having a student achievement coordinator who turns around the data for the teachers; having a dean of students to interact with all the families so that the teacher can really focus on being super well-prepared; having planning time so that she or he can deliver those lessons, and really get to know their students as learners.

CONAN: Paula, thanks very much.

PAULA: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeff, Jeff calling from Cleveland.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

JEFF: Your guest is arguing from a false dichotomy. It's not a matter of either-or. We don't have this kind of discussion when we're talking about the latest fighter jet or the latest aircraft carrier. We come up with the money. We can have them both. As a nation, we just have to make that decision.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: You know, that would be nice, and I totally support investing in education. I think nothing is more important than the quality of service. But we have increased spending in this country - dramatically - over the last 20 years. And I don't think the resources that we have are endless. I'm looking at state budgets across this city. I'm looking at local governmental budgets. And I see expenditures far outpacing revenues. And so I think we are going to have to make some choices.

I think if we just put our heads in the sand like ostriches, and pretend that we don't have to prioritize, we're going to be doing a terrible disservice to children. And I would urge all Americans to really think about what are our priorities.

And I would argue that class size - which has been at the top of the list, consistently - should be re-examined. I don't think it is as important as art and music and sports and science five days a week, and paying teachers more, and giving teachers more planning time and common planning time, and having added resources at the school level for materials and supplies.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll end with this email from Mary in Sheboygan: I'm at home today, resting my voice, because I have laryngitis. I currently have two classes of 4r-year-old kindergarten students, 24 in each group, for a total of 48 students. While I prefer groups of about 20, this is manageable group size.

Unfortunately, it's the paperwork for 48 students that's wearing me down. Each year, we have more added to the documentation: testing, daily reports, and other paperwork required. It's enough to make me seriously consider early retirement. I'm not sure that more money in my paycheck would balance the amount of paperwork I face every week.

And is that an element of class size, too?

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: I think we're asking teachers, certainly, to fill out too much paperwork. We have a compliance-driven system, and that is not a design that organizes the school around teaching and learning.

CONAN: Eva Moskowitz, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. MOSKOWITZ: Thank you.

CONAN: Eva Moskowitz is founder and CEO of the Success Charter Network, a collection of seven charter schools in Harlem and the Bronx, former New York City councilwoman who represented a district in Manhattan. Her op-ed, "The Cost of Small Class Size," ran in the Washington Post yesterday. You can find a link to it at npr.org. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow: What's changed in Tunisia and Egypt since the overthrow of the governments there? We'll talk about when a revolution is really a revolution. Plus, where do former dictators go once they're pushed out? Pariahs and their eventual destinations. We'll talk about that tomorrow, on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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