Julie Hubbard, Tennessean.com
January 25, 2012

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam wants a bonus system that eliminates state-imposed average class size caps and pays the best teachers to take on more students.

Bills sponsored by Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in the state Senate, and Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, in the state House, would do just that.

However, the plan is not one Dickson County Schools Director Johnny Chandler supports – nor does the majority of the other state school systems’ superintendents, Chandler said.

“I am not in favor of that,” Chandler said. “I think they are going backward raising class sizes.”

Chandler represents the Mid-Cumberland region on the board of directors for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. He said at the most recent meeting, the organization was largely opposed to Haslam’s idea. The one aspect the superintendents like is the flexibility.

Tennessee’s average class size grew by about five students per class from 2000 to this year. Haslam’s legislation could grow classes by another five, making 25-30 students in elementary grades and up to 35 students in high school the new norm.

But it also would free districts from paying teachers by the state step plan — which gives annual raises based on degree level and years of service — and allow them to pay more based on class size or student learning gains.

The switch would be optional for districts, and no teacher would lose pay under any new plan.

Districts can’t afford smaller classes

At least 11 states have increased classes since federal stimulus act funds started running out in 2010, Education Counts Research Center data show.

Georgia’s state board of education passed a flexibility resolution that year to allow districts to ignore a class size mandate of 21-23 students per room in elementary and middle schools and 32 in high schools after state and local revenues declined. Without enough money to pay teachers, districts couldn’t comply.

Wisconsin also gave districts a class size waiver. In 2002, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment to cap class sizes, and a 2010 ballot issue to reverse that over its high cost failed.

Nobody questions that smaller classes help younger students and those who live in poverty make higher learning gains, said Raegen T. Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based policy think tank. But few districts can afford to hire based on that.

“The bad news is that the policies are enormously expensive,” Miller said. “We don’t have much evidence on class size at the high school or middle school level with the good evidence focused on early grades. The question is whether there are other ways to use the money that would yield as much or better academic results.”

That thinking was echoed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who gave a speech titled “The New Normal: Doing More with Less” at the American Enterprise Institute two years ago.

Teachers’ salaries comprise more than half of a district’s expenses, with $8 billion being spent by districts each year to give raises based on credentials that Duncan argues may or may not increase learning. He called for a rewrite of teacher compensation.

“We support shifting away from class-size-based reduction that is not evidence-based,” he said. “Secondary school classes in South Korea average about 36 students. In Japan, it’s 33 students per class.”

Haslam’s proposal, House Bill 2348, sponsored by McCormick, has been assigned to education subcommittees for review. There’s no fiscal note explaining how much the state would free up by allowing larger class sizes.

Study led to caps

An often-cited Tennessee study helped put some of those class size caps in place.

In 1985, former Metro Nashville teacher Helen Pate-Bain persuaded lawmakers to spend $12 million for Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis (then known as Memphis State University) and other colleges to study class size effects on inner-city and rural students in 79 schools across the state. Some classes were capped at 17 and others at 25.

The four-year STAR Project — Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio — showed that students in smaller classes scored higher on national exams and were less likely to fail a grade. The benefits of attending small K-3 classes carried through to high school, and minority students in smaller classes made more significant gains than ones in larger classes.

The project findings ignited a movement.

From 1986 to 1991, there was a 5 percent national decline in student-teacher ratios, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2000, Congress approved $1.6 billion to help school districts hire extra teachers to reduce class sizes in grades 1-3 to a national average of 18 students, a trend lasting until the recession.

Flexibility wanted

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford echoed what the nation’s teachers’ unions long have said about pay-for-performance plans — they don’t encourage necessary collaboration.

“There tends to be this movement toward competition between teachers, schools and school systems, and I just don’t see that as a way to encourage success,” she said.

The current pay structure requires the state education board to set a flat, minimum dollar amount for teacher salaries each year. The step scale builds on pay based on experience and educational attainment, with the state paying, on average, 75 percent of a teacher’s salary.

Districts frequently add a local supplement, so a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns $33,900 in Williamson County versus $32,796 in Dickson County.

At least 20 of the state’s 136 school districts have state approval to try their own pay scales, using local money or federal grants.

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