May 15, 2001
Honorable Patty Murray
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-4704
Dear Senator Murray:
I was pleased to have the opportunity to address you, Chairman Specter and other members of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday, May 10, 2001. The dialogue allowed each of us to discuss many issues that we believe will make a critical difference in the education of the young people we serve.
During that hearing you discussed your commitment to class size reduction. I know that your interest in this program comes from your deep commitment to children and the environment in which they are educated. My experience with teachers and principals as well as superintendents convinces me they are equally committed to educating young students well. The Administration's intent on combining several existing teacher quality programs, including Class Size Reduction and Eisenhower Professional Development, is to allow them the flexibility to design programs that best meet the needs of the children they serve.
Many educators have read the Bill Sanders STAR Study of Tennessee, which said that reducing class size to 15-17 students improved achievement for those students, all other factors being equal. But they have also read the Bill Sanders study of Value-Added Teacher Effectiveness, which showed that a child who has an ineffective teacher will lose 15-25 percentile points of achievement on the state assessment as compared to the child with an effective teacher. Professor Sanders' research also shows that achievement loss is both additive and cumulative -- the child will never be able to regain the level he or she might have achieved if the child had had an effective teacher that year. I wanted to bring this to your attention in support of my view that class size is only one factor in the complex matrix that educators must consider as they determine how best to allocate their resources to improve student achievement. I truly believe we will be making a mistake if we assume that simply reducing class size will solve achievement problems in schools.
If local educators believe that they can create smaller class sizes to produce greater student achievement in their schools, they will use the funds allocated for Teacher Quality in that way. Local educators would make the decision, but if they find that they cannot reduce class size because they are unable to find effective teachers to teach those classes, they should have the option to use those funds to improve the quality of instruction in other ways. With flexibility, they might use the funds to provide
professional development to strengthen the skills and strategies of current teachers, purchase resources that extend the opportunity for individual and small group learning, or coach teachers as they provide individual assistance to children experiencing roadblocks to learning. They will have that flexibility if we provide a consolidated grant for Teacher Quality.
I speak with such passion about this subject because of my past experiences in Houston with class size reduction grants. As we considered uses of the funds, we had to consider many realities:
The funds might be a one-year only allocation, so we worried about how we would maintain those additional teachers without continued funding the next year;
The district had no space to add classrooms for class size reduction;
The grant funds would pay for the salary of a first-year teacher only;
There were only enough funds to hire 173 new teachers, although we had 185 elementary schools;
The funds were to be used in K-3 classrooms;
The district and the state already had reduced class size to 22 children to one teacher in K-4.
What was tantamount in our considerations was that we wanted to use the dollars to do what it is that schools are supposed to do: make sure children learn. We did not believe that adding a single teacher to each school would make a real difference in student achievement. Instead, we came up with a plan to place highly trained reading teachers in the schools with the greatest needs and use district funds to pay the difference in salaries between first-year teachers and experienced ones. Where a school was very large -- 800-1,500 students -- we placed more than one teacher in the program.
Principals were asked to select their best reading teacher and free that person to work with students in early grades with reading difficulties. The district trained these reading teachers in a repertoire of effective strategies for assisting young children with reading problems. After careful consideration we put together a program that we felt addressed the spirit if not the letter of the regulations related to the class size reduction grants.
With that experience, however, I am more convinced of the value of flexibility in terms of addressing schools' and district-level needs. To satisfy the requirements of the grant, the reading teachers "team taught" in classrooms, reducing class size for a portion of the day, but, more importantly, working with the problem readers. Most of the schools
focused on first grade children because they knew that learning to read on grade level by the end of first grade is a major determinant of future school success.
I want to tell you what this plan helped Houston accomplish. Last month, the first grade students in Houston scored at the 64th percentile on the Stanford 9, a test that compared our students' performance with the performance of primarily suburban, more affluent children. While Houston is 89% minority and 75% of the students participate in the Free and Reduced Meal Program, students nationwide who took the Stanford test were less than 30% minority and less than 20% in the Free and Reduced Meal Program. All of our first through third graders, students who have been touched by our program, scored above the 52nd percentile on the Stanford 9 and our bilingual students scored at the 71st to 75th percentile.
I believe that with greater flexibility more school districts across the country would use Title II funds we are proposing to make available to improve the quality of classroom instruction through preparing, training and recruiting quality teachers. For some schools and districts, especially those with large classes, the decision may be to reduce class size, but for others, it may be better to use those funds more creatively. Given your demonstrated interest in our reform package and your understanding of the myriad and local nature of the challenges facing our schools and districts as a former school board member, I would ask that you allow school districts the flexibility to make those decisions.