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In summary

Critics underestimate the importance of class size reduction because they don’t understand the challenges of our profession. Hiring teachers and other professionals to help students directly serves students.

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By Glenn Sacks, Special to CalMatters

Glenn Sacks teaches social studies and represents United Teachers Los Angeles at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, glenn@glennsacks.com.

The Los Angeles Unified School District will receive $4.7 billion in additional federal funds and have wide latitude in deciding how to spend it. United Teachers Los Angeles believes that the district’s priority should be achieving smaller class sizes and expanding services for students.

Opponents use our priorities to portray the union as selfish and disinterested in students’ welfare. For example, education author Lance Izumi, who helped shape education policy under President Trump, criticizes teachers unions — and United Teachers Los Angeles in particular — for wanting districts to hire more teachers and nonteaching staff, explaining that this is “money, not to students, of course, but to the adults within the system.”

Chantal Lovell, communications director of the California Policy Center, asserts that what we want is “more closely correlated with a bump in the union’s budget than with improved student outcomes” and that our union’s budget priorities are designed to “pad their pockets.”

How best to spend the money is a legitimate issue to debate, but what Izumi, Lovell and other critics fail to understand is that hiring teachers and other professionals to help students directly serves students. A music department doesn’t succeed because of the strings on its cellos. An athletic program doesn’t succeed because of its gym equipment.

Class size reduction has long been a union priority, and the Los Angeles school district, to its credit, has moved to reduce class sizes by hiring over 1,000 more teachers for the 2021-2022 school year.

Critics point to studies purporting to show little or no connection between class size and student performance. Economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, a prominent educational scholar, calls such claims the result of “poor-quality studies.”

In a National Education Policy Center report, she found that smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children, and that these students are most harmed by class size increases. This directly relates to the Los Angeles school district — even before the economic disruption of the pandemic, 76% of its students lived in poverty, and 90% are minority.

Critics underestimate the importance of class size reduction because they don’t understand the challenges of our profession. A teacher must have all students on task at all times all day, every day. That’s a lot easier to do with 26 kids than with 36. We seek to challenge students by giving them essays and open-answer tests rather than multiple-choice exams. Whether a teacher reads 145 or 185 papers makes a big difference. The larger the grading load, the less time we have for our students.

Before the 2019 Los Angeles teachers strike, California ranked near the bottom in class sizes nationwide, and class size reduction was one of the strike’s most important gains. The reductions we won have allowed us to do our jobs better.

Our union favors a strong revival of music, drama, art, physical education and athletics, all of which have been difficult to teach via distance learning. As we return to school, these programs can play an important role in motivating students, reconnecting them with their schools and peers, and regaining a healthier lifestyle.

Izumi points to the problem of “rampant mental health problems among children stuck at home,” and Lovell notes students’ “emotional anguish.” They are correct — many teachers have witnessed students dealing with the loss of family members.

Two of my students’ fathers died of COVID-19, and numerous students lost grandparents they lived with or near. Moreover, quarantining has increased conflict between children and their parents, and between spouses, at a time when students have been largely separated from their friends and support systems. 

Smaller class sizes so each student can have more of their teacher’s attention and assistance, more mental health services for students in need, expansion of music, drama, art and sports programs — these are our goals, and they necessitate hiring professionals to provide these services. How could such an increase not be beneficial for kids?

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Glenn Sacks has previously written about D-Day history in textbooks, school reopenings and the pandemic’s effect on schools.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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