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SPECIAL REPORT: Class size or Teacher Quality - John Dunn

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For decades school systems have been hiring as many teachers as possible to reduce class size. But what if those districts have been wrong? What if that money should have been spent on hiring better teachers, instead of more teachers.    

At Nashville's KIPP Academy one thing stays consistent. The students are eager to learn, and the teachers are engaging. "What we've seen is that strong teachers can really transform life trajectory, we know that to be true," says Randy Dowell, Executive Director at KIPP Nashville.

Student achievement is a constant pressure in Tennessee schools, and a lot of money has been spent to improve results. Tennessee schools spend $9,293 on average to educate each child. Much of that spending helps to reduce or keep class sizes small.

"If we can keep class size as small as possible, that means we can work with the students that need it the most," says Jim Wrye with the Tennessee Education Association.

In the 1980's, Tennessee led the way on classroom size research with a report called "Project STAR."  The study found that smaller classroom size is better, especially in early grades. Billions of dollars have been spent around the world to hire more teachers based on the STAR study. Tennessee's largest teachers union fully supports STAR's conclusion. "It is unequivocal that the groundbreaking research that Tennessee undertook in the 80's showed the effectiveness and the benefits of smaller class sizes," says Wrye.

Recently the class size question has been re-examined. In his new book "David and Goliath," bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell offers a different view. "The difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is (large)," says Gladwell.

Gladwell has examined the hundreds of studies on class size. 15% show significant evidence that students do better in smaller classes, about the same number find that students do worse. Another 20% find no effect at all, and the remaining studies are not strong enough to draw any real conclusions.
Gladwell recently spoke in Nashville. He believes good teachers make the biggest difference. "I would rather my child be one of 35 students in a class with a great teacher, than one of 10 students in a class with a lousy teacher," says Gladwell.

A similar view has also been expressed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. FOX 17 News asked parents which they prefer, a smaller class, or a great teacher?

"The great teacher is going to do the best that she can, or he can, to meet the needs of all the kids," says parent Tori Young.

"I think even if classrooms were just a few students bigger, we need to focus on the quality of teachers," says parent Judith Najar.

In 2013, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam proposed raising the average class size in Tennessee. but he withdrew the idea because it was largely unpopular. Still, he believes teacher quality is important. "A great teacher makes that much difference, and again, if you look at all the data, a great teacher makes a difference not just that one year, but for an extended period of time," says Governor Bill Haslam, (R) Tennessee.

At Nashville's KIPP Academy charter school, administrators try to balance class size and good teaching, but with test scores rising above other schools, it is clear what matters most. "Quality of a teacher really is the most important thing to drive students results," says Randy Dowell.

The state of Tennessee has made changes to improve the number of good teachers in schools, including making performance and effectiveness a part of receiving tenure.

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