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Commentary: Choose the right policy tool

Depending on local conditions, class-size reduction or improving educator effectiveness may prove to be a more successful strategy, says a local policy expert.

A debate on class-size reduction vs. improving educator effectiveness as policy tools for improving student outcomes has recently surfaced in education policy circles.  A May 27tharticle in the Denver Post, highlighted this debate, but missed a key point.  Either tool can be a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes; the question is which fits a school or district’s strategic condition.

The research, particularly the Tennessee STAR experiment, (also see this) has clearly shown that class-size reduction can lead to lasting, improved student outcomes. The nice thing about class-size reduction is that we understand how to implement the policy, its costs, and implementation challenges.

The research has also shown that effective teachers can support improved student outcomes.  For example, I blogged on this research, and here is an earlier research synthesis.. However, while we know that improving teacher effectiveness will lead to improved student performance, implementing policies to raise teacher quality is a lot less straightforward than class-size reduction.

The theory of action for improving teacher effectiveness is pretty simple:

  • Hire the most effective candidates,
  • Improve the good teachers,
  • Keep the great teachers, and
  • Exit the poor teachers.

Implementing each of these steps requires systems that can identify teacher strengths and weaknesses and respond with appropriate tools. Progress is being made. The Colorado Department of Education has a self-assessment for human capital systems here.  And then there are the efforts to implement the new educator evaluation system.  In the end, fully implementing a new educator effectiveness system will require districts to build and sustain practices that are not part of traditional school and district operations.

Before an education leader decides on class-size reduction or educator effectiveness as a reform strategy, she might want to ask herself a few strategic questions:

  • Can my school leaders identify, hire and retain quality teachers?
  • Can teachers and leaders work together to identify teacher professional learning needs?
  • Do I have access to quality professional learning activities for my teachers?
  • Can I (politically, emotionally and legally) sustain purposeful exiting of ineffective teachers?

If the answers to these questions are “yes” or “not now, but soon”, then educator effectiveness is probably the right strategy.  If the answer to any two of these questions is “no” or “not in the near future” then class-size reduction may be a better policy alternative.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.