Just as students return to school and voters prepare for the state’s gubernatorial recall election, California is experiencing another worrying uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. With the pandemic changing education options, whoever wins the recall election, along with the state’s school leaders, should recognize California needs to reform the way it funds students and pays its best teachers.
California’s 2021-22 budget, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, includes $93.7 billion for education on top of the nearly $24 billion schools have been allocated in the three federal emergency stimulus and COVID-19 relief packages Congress has passed since the onset of the pandemic.
Despite declining K-12 enrollment in the state’s public schools, a trend that started well before the pandemic, the budget allocates significant funds to hire more teachers. The goal of hiring 50,000 new teachers over the next five years—at a time when students and families are leaving California—will only increase the fiscal and administrative bloat plaguing many school districts.
The state’s K-12 enrollment has decreased by nearly 320,000 students since it peaked 17 years ago. California’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), vividly exemplifies this trend. LAUSD has experienced a massive drop in enrollment—losing more than 100,000 students since 2013—but has continued to add thousands of full-time workers during that time.
The California Teachers Association and former LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner claim that even more staffing growth is necessary to reduce classroom sizes and improve student outcomes across grade levels. Unfortunately, other states have shown reducing classroom sizes fails to meaningfully improve student outcomes. A study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found “class size does not have a statistically significant effect on student achievement.”
When states do see improvements related to smaller class sizes, they tend to be fleeting. Tennessee schools, for example, reported positive student outcomes after reducing class sizes from over 20 to 13-to-17 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes. But, “there’s no strong evidence of the value of small classes in grades 4+” in Tennessee, education researchers Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel wrote.
Part of the problem is that hiring more teachers does not guarantee those new teachers will actually be effective. And reams of research show high-quality teachers are a crucial factor in improving student learning. Unfortunately, the K-12 education system has long struggled to attract competitive teacher applicants. In 2019, Harvard University’s Paul Peterson noted that high-quality instruction for future teachers at colleges of education has diminished.
Remarkably, only 46 percent of the nation’s teaching applicants passed their elementary school teaching licensure test on their first attempt in 2015. For comparison, 85 percent of nursing applicants passed the equivalent nursing test on their first attempt and the American Bar Association reports that “first-time law exam takers in 2018 achieved a 74.82 percent pass rate.”
California doesn’t need more teachers. Having great teachers in large classrooms is better than having second-rate teachers in smaller classrooms. In fact, top-performing education nations in Asia, such as South Korea, China, and Japan, favor learning models with larger classrooms. However, teachers in these learning models are also given more time to prepare lessons and to offer additional support to struggling students.
To build a more effective teacher workforce—and help improve student achievement—California should pay its effective teachers more. Policymakers need to regularly evaluate educators, identifying and financially rewarding the teachers who are helping students improve. California should also eliminate its state-required courses for teachers, which show no relation to improving student performance.
California’s massive education budget and focus on reducing class sizes are unlikely to improve student achievement. Instead, policymakers need to help students by giving them more effective teachers. The state needs to create fiscal incentives, such as performance-based salaries, to attract and retain the best teachers. California needs to focus on the quality, not quantity, of its teachers.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.