Adding teachers, not subtracting students, equals smaller class sizes in Florida

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Regardless of what Governor Jeb Bush intends to do about that 'nasty' class size amendment he's been straddled with, many Florida school districts are way ahead of him as far as weakening the amendment goes. Taking advantage of the law's definitions, The Miami Herald reports this week that many schools are meeting the law by adding an extra teacher to the classroom, not by reducing actual class sizes. As it is now, many of Florida's classes remain packed: a third of Broward County's elementary schools still have at least one classroom with more than 35 students. Some Miami-Dade high schools have as many as 60 students in a classroom.

Schools are dreaming up all sorts of creative ways to meet the law's requirements, particularly overcrowded schools that don't happen to have an empty classroom or two. One popular and relatively legitimate strategy is mainstreaming special ed students, counting the special ed teacher as a second teacher, and voila! the class size is cut in half. Less legit may be counting class size during the period that the reading teacher visits the classroom or after some students have been temporarily pulled out for tutoring. While certainly the current law is not devoid of instructional benefits, legislators need to recognize the invariable problems that come with top-down, relatively inflexible mandates like this one. Instead of focusing on what really matters—student achievement—school leaders are spending a lot of time gaming this law. One can only imagine how schools might better spend their time if given more freedom.

In other news, Governor Bush recently released an ambitious education wish list, including increasing pay for teachers who volunteer to work in poor schools and high-crime areas, teach under-staffed subjects, and take on leadership positions. This is a good idea, but the state will have to give teachers more than just a few extra pennies to make a real difference. Also on the agenda: giving bonuses to principals whose schools perform well. Since strong leadership is crucial to promoting teacher and student achievement, any provisions that encourage principals to run a tighter ship are fine with us.