The first years of the 1970s saw the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the military draft coming to an end. The size of our military began to shrink, despite an increased threat from the Soviet Union in Europe as they continued to build a larger and offensively oriented force.
The U.S. military found itself at a real numerical disadvantage, and this problem was further aggravated by the lack of political and public support for the military following the Vietnam War. This was truly the proverbial rock and a hard place. The military was faced with an increasingly difficult mission coupled with declining support and personnel, a situation our current education leaders can certainly appreciate.
Thankfully, our military leaders did not wait for more support to meet their mission. Instead, they recognized their predicament as their new situation. They decided that if they couldn't increase the size of their forces, they would increase the effectiveness of their current forces.
To accomplish this new strategy, they embarked on a mission to make our armed forces the best-trained and best-equipped in the world. They introduced new technology to servicemen and women and taught them how to use it. They gave our forces technologically advanced weapons, equipment and support that had greater capabilities and flexibilities.
This plan was known as Force Modernization, and the new tools employed were known as Combat Multipliers.
In education today, we face a similar situation. A reduction in education funding has resulted in fewer teachers, which in turn has resulted in larger class sizes. We have fewer people to perform a challenging mission. So what impact do increased class sizes have on our students' performance? That's a good question, and one that does not have a simple answer. Intuitively, I would respond that increased class sizes result in lower student performance due to a decrease in individual attention to the students. From my core, I have always believed that to be the answer.
However, the common answer given by those who have studied this question is that the research is inconclusive. Why?
There are a great number of things that affect student performance, both in and out of the classroom. In order to have accurate data, you would need to isolate or compensate for all other variables so that only the issue of class size is relevant to the outcome of the research. Some researchers have gone to extreme lengths to meet that goal, but they still recognize that perfect isolation of class size is impossible.
Most research does agree though that class-size reduction has the greatest impact on the lower grades, and that impact does not materialize until the size of the class gets to be 20 or less. It has been noted that the greatest impact was seen in kindergarten, and the higher the grade, the lower the impact.
Many studies have failed to make any correlation between class size and performance after third grade.
Class size reduction in a district as big as Lodi Unified is extremely expensive. During budget discussions last year, I learned that the cost of lowering our average K-3 class size from 29 to 28 would be more than $400,000, and that number would increase for each succeeding reduction of one student. Additionally, this becomes an ongoing commitment, not a one time cost.
I want to note that there are some state funding incentives for reducing class sizes for K-3 to below 24, but the cost of getting to that point is obviously significant in this period of reduced funding.
There is also the problem of managing class size at the individual schools.
Consider this real world example: You set your kindergarten class size goal of 20, and then have 28 students register for class. The families of those 8 additional students don't want their children bused to another school, but that might be the only option that we can offer, short of hiring another teacher. It's possible in this scenario that we might even lose some of those students to a charter school and thus reduce our funding even further.
So, even though at my core I still believe that the best possible situation for our schools is to have fewer students in any class, I know that we have to understand that achieving smaller class sizes is not, in fact, our goal. As I have said in earlier articles, that goal must be to prepare students for life after high school.
One of the ways to meet our objective in this time of reduced funding and personnel is to take a look at how those military leaders handled their situation back in the 70s. They knew they couldn't increase the number of people they had, so they made a decision to make those people more effective through technology.
This is the same tactic used by almost every business. As a result, we have seen the productivity of individual workers increase.
And yet, we in education still want to do it with sheer numbers.
Yes, I would like to have it both ways, but the bottom line is that we don't have the money. I don't want to replace teachers with computers, but I do want to quit fixating on class size and make the educators we have more effective through the implementation of modern technology. Technology needs to become our Education Multiplier.
Lodi Unified School District trustee George Neely is a former military officer, General Electric executive and public school teacher.