Hundreds of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs in recent years. And as U.S. students go back to school amid a presidential campaign with clashing budget visions, President Barack Obama is sounding the alarm.
Since since the end of the recession three years ago, 300,000 educators have lost their jobs -- 7,000 in the last month alone, according to a report the White House released Saturday, titled "Investing in Our Future: Returning Teachers to the Classroom." To remain financially solvent, 292 school districts took drastic measures that include a four-day school week and cutting full-day kindergarten. Pittsburgh laid off 280 teachers, the report said. Cleveland cut teachers and programs in music, art and gym.
The massive layoffs have increased the student-teacher ratio, reversing a long trend. After years of having more teachers for each student, the national ratio of students to teachers increased by 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2010. It's now 16 students per teacher, where it was in 2000. While the student-teacher ratio is not the same as class size because it includes non-classroom teachers, the class size trend is bound to look the same, senior administration officials pointed out on a Friday call with reporters.
The White House report is the first comprehensive tally of the cumulative effects of teacher layoffs on class size over the last few years. The report was prepared by the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council and the Council of Economic Advisors, and aims to bolster the case for passing Obama's American Jobs Act.
“This year, several thousand fewer educators will be going back to school,” Obama plans to say in his weekly radio address on Saturday. “Think about what that means for our country. At a time when the rest of the world is racing to out-educate America; these cuts force our kids into crowded classrooms, cancel programs for preschoolers and kindergarteners, and shorten the school week and the school year. That’s the opposite of what we should be doing as a country.”
Obama will call on Congress to revive his jobs bill, saying, "here we are – a year later with tens of thousands more educators laid off –- and Congress still hasn’t done anything about it." He will also chide House Republicans for passing a budget, the one by Wis. Rep. and Republican vice presidential contender Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), that "would make the situation much worse."
The White House report, and the rhetoric around it, shows how an election-minded administration can switch gears. Class size has become a pulse point for education in the 2012 presidential election, with presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney telling Philadelphia teachers in the spring that class size doesn't matter for educational outcomes, and that "Just getting smaller classrooms didn't seem to be the key." Romney also made fun of Obama for trying to keep more teachers in the classroom.
Until recently, the Obama administration also had been less than strident about keeping classes small. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a breakfast that "class size is a sacred cow and we need to take it on." Duncan later clarified in an interview with The Huffington Post that he'd rather have better teachers in larger classes. "My point there was that I think the quality of the teacher is so hugely important," Duncan said. "I've said things like, give me the parent, give me an option of 28 children in a class with a phenomenal teacher or 22 children in a class with a mediocre teacher. If I was given that choice, I would choose a larger class size."
Duncan has also noted that in his administration's guidelines for rewriting No Child Left Behind, "we support shifting away from class-sized based reduction that is not evidence-based." He noted that high-performing school systems in Asia have larger class sizes.
Research on class sizes is mixed. A 1980s Tennessee study, known as STAR, examined class size over four years and found the benefits of small classes were pronounced in early years, as kids learn how to read and add, but less important in later grades. Since then, no rigorous experiments have been performed.
Still, the increase in teacher-student ratios uncovered by the White House "might seem minimal to some people, but when you're talking about a class size in early grades, and they're coming in with different abilities and different needs, it makes a difference," said Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.