The following editorial appeared Sunday in the Florence Morning News:
Since taking office in 2011, the state’s conservative and somewhat controversial superintendent of education, Mick Zais, has shown a strong preference for charter schools, overall choice for parents in education and the need for some fundamental changes in the way we do education in South Carolina and America. He has sought better accountability for teachers, flexibility in instructional time and more realistic grading systems for districts and district personnel.
He worked to grant South Carolina waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said was needed in order to give school districts flexibility to be innovative, creative and transformative.
We’ve applauded Zais on some of his efforts to shift the decision-making authority to the local level in the past, but we are a little leery his latest suggestion of stripping the caps on classroom sizes will have the desired effect.
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Members of the S.C. Board of Education this week seemed unlikely to move forward with a state Department of Education plan to remove the caps on the number of students that a teacher can have in a class as well as rules that require schools to have a certain number of principals, guidance counselors and art, music and library teachers. The plan comes up for more discussion and a vote next month, and would need approval before going to a vote in the General Assembly. Zais said this plan would let school districts decide class sizes and hire teachers based on their needs.
Conventional wisdom says the smaller the classes, the better the education, because teachers can pay more attention to each child. Low student-teacher ratios have gone so far as to become a selling point for parents when evaluating schools. Of course, small class sizes alone do not a great education make. There is the size of the school, the level of parent involvement, dedicated teachers and administrators as well as other variables. So, while, yes, research has found that there is a relationship between class size and student outcomes, the way to interpret the data can vary.
Some parents will intuitively believe smaller classes sizes are better for their kids, and do not care if there is conflicting or muddled research. Studies have been a bit more definitive on teacher techniques, such as classroom management and time on-task, as having positive impacts on student performance. But that is dependant upon the teacher actually taking advantage of the smaller class size to reach those students, something that is certainly not always done.
However, we do feel there is something to be said about teachers’ morale and their abilities to connect in smaller classrooms. In more intimate settings, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed by having a variety of students with different backgrounds and achievement levels. As a result, they are more likely to provide a supportive environment that can have positive effects on their students.
Zais said the cap size for the formative first, second and third grades (maximum 28 students per class) would remain, and sizes would not dramatically spike elsewhere.
Is there a huge pedagogical difference on students if class sizes jump from 25 to 30? Probably not. But with budget crunches seemingly always looming on the shoulders of school districts, how long does the rationale extend? Thirty-five isn’t really that much more than 30, is it? Well…
Keeping limits on class sizes alone certainly won’t assure the students of South Carolina a quality education. But we fear taking it away would add even more strain to already stressed systems and teachers, effectively capping the amount of educational progress our students can make.