Do kids do better with bigger classes and well-paid teachers?

We may soon find out. The New York Times reports on a school that’s taking a punt on the growing body of teacher quality research, opting to pay its teachers seriously good salaries.

A New York City charter school set to open in 2009 in Washington Heights will test one of the most fundamental questions in education: Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.

The school, which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. That is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, roughly two and a half times the national average teacher salary and higher than the base salary of all but the most senior teachers in the most generous districts nationwide.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success. …

The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. … Its classes will have 30 students. In an inversion of the traditional school hierarchy that is raising eyebrows among school administrators, the principal will start off earning just $90,000. In place of a menu of electives to round out the core curriculum, all students will take music and Latin. Period.

Even in Australia, the tradeoff between class size and teacher salary isn’t trivial. According to the most recent Employee Earnings and Hours Survey (from May 2006), the average teacher earns $1216 a week, or $63,000 per year. If Australian states raised class sizes from their current level of about 26 children to the Washington Heights School’s level of 30 children, we could immediately raise average teacher salaries to $73,000 – encouraging talented people to enter and stay in the profession.

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9 Responses to Do kids do better with bigger classes and well-paid teachers?

  1. Brendan says:

    Talking about class sizes, what do you think of grouping children according to their ability between classes?

  2. conrad says:

    I’m not sure what we can really learn from this. The problem is you need to randomly selected teachers, otherwise you might simply be selecting what could be a rather atypical bunch.
    A good way to think about this is that lets say 10% of teachers want, can cope with, and will be better because of this. You then run your school and it looks like it works — which it will, but once too many people start doing it it won’t, since you will run out of this 10% quickly.
    It could also have a negative effect. Lets say you get benefit from 10% of teachers, but 20% of teachers want to do it, even though it causes a negative (we all want more money, after all). Some schools will now lose performance. You might even find difficult to get teachers in the future, because the perceived job difficulty/rewards will be poor, and you’ll be up against all those other jobs in the private sector where you get paid a lot and work like a dog. Why get slightly more than poor pay for a crappy job when you can good pay for a crappy job?
    This second scenario is of course what basically happened in the university sytem. Everyone traded off more money for “performance”, and you can see the results of that for yourself and think yourself lucky you got your PhD from the US (let alone think about the kids who are still illiterate/innumerate after getting a degree in social sciences because we don’t have the time or resources to help them learnt to write or do a bit of quantitative analysis).

  3. Molesworth says:

    The best thing about this article, for me, is the way it treats the Washington Heights school as an interesting experiment to be observed and, if possible, for lessons to be learned from. Kudos to Bloomberg, the teachers unions and all the other parties in New York that made this experiment possible. I really, really hope our senior education professionals, and the staffers in our Ministers’ offices, are watching the New York charter school system. Maybe this experiment will work, maybe it won’t. My gut feeling is the former, but maybe I’m wrong. At least we will be able to have a debate with some hard figures.

  4. Brendan says:

    ‘kudos to teachers unions’?
    don’t they in fact oppose charter schools?

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  6. Chris Curtis says:

    Increasing class sizes to 30 students – a higher number than in any class I taught during my 33 years as a teacher between 1974 and 2007 – would not have encouraged me to stay in the profession. I found the 25 maximum that applied to every class I taught apart from in two of those years more than enough to deal with.

    Framing the discussion of class sizes in opposition to teacher pay plays into the hands of those who have undermined the education system by making both worse. Society can easily afford to both pay teachers more and have small classes. It did so 30 years ago.

    Decent teaching loads and class sizes do make a difference. I was the timetabler of Waterdale High School, a disadvantaged school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, from 1976 to 1980. Its classes typically had fewer than 25 students. The average teaching load was 15 hours 29 minutes in 1979 – well below the 20-hour maximum imposed by the use of retrospective legislation in 1992 and still in place. It was sufficiently staffed to employ 13 per cent of its teachers in literacy and numeracy programs. The Commonwealth’s Disadvantaged Schools Program provided teacher aides and materials. Its staffing and conditions allowed a measurable improvement in students’ achievement.

    It was part of a system. It had a strong teachers union, a positive factor in education. It had principals who accepted the professional judgement of their teachers and who were capable of working with them, who did not need the bully’s power to fire to be effective leaders. It did not have to waste its energy on mission statements, charters, strategic plans, local selection of staff, onerous and pointless accountability measures or box and whisper graphs. It got on with its job of teaching.

    Victorian teachers at the top of the scale in 1979 were paid 153 per cent of male average ordinary time earnings. That would be about $94,202 today, a lot more than the current $65,414.

    The secondary pupil-teacher ratio then was 11.0:1. If the average secondary school were that well staffed today, it would have another five teachers, sufficient to allow the restoration of the class size and teaching load limits removed by the previous government.

    If a much poorer state could afford to treat teachers decently thirty years ago, a wealthy one can find the $500 million do so today.

  7. I’m a UK teacher that teaches a part-time schedule and then provides cover for other classes in the remainder. That is unusual. Of the classes I teach as part of that schedule two have 32 and 30 students in them. That is not unusual. I wouldn’t recommend classes of that size but it can be done…just about. I wouldn’t mind a doubling of my salary for my trouble though.

  8. conrad says:

    “Society can easily afford to both pay teachers more and have small classes”

    I’m sure most parents can too, given that Australia is one of the richest countries on Earth. Its just people have a preferance for new cars and big houses, and like to pretend that they are really poor.

  9. Molesworth says:

    Brendan, you’re no doubt right in most cases, but I thought (and I’m no expert) that the union perspective on the NYC system was a bit more nuanced. I think they negotiated to allow an extension of the system in return for better labour rights, and I think they may even run one or two of their own. It was a teachers union guy who popularised the idea in the first place, and I think at least some of the union criticism has been been more along the lines of, look the idea itself isn’t so bad but it’s being twisted and used by union-busting management ideologues to attack us. But maybe I’ve just swallowed someone’s line.

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