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How Can School Districts Improve Student Outcomes While Keeping Teachers Happy?

Michael Nutter

February 6, 2019

Investing in professional development programming is a powerful way for school districts to support students and teachers alike.

As the vast majority of America’s public school teachers were trickling back into the classroom after their winter recesses last month, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — the second-largest district in the country — were preparing to go on strike for the first time in nearly three decades.

And while a pay raise (LAUSD teachers were asking for a 6.5 percent salary bump) and increased investment in support staff (in the form of more school nurses, librarians, and counselors) featured prominently on the teachers’ list of demands, the primary impetus for the strike was a desire for smaller class sizes — a perennial sticking point in district/teachers union negotiations.

Ultimately, after a relatively short six-day strike, LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles struck a deal that, among other things, will reduce class sizes in grades 4 through 12 by one student in each of the next two years, and by an additional two students the following year. The agreement also eliminates a clause in LAUSD teachers’ current contract that allows the district to increase class sizes beyond contractually agreed upon thresholds in the event of serious “fiscal distress.”

In addition to grabbing national headlines, this whirlwind strike raised an important, if somewhat contentious, two-part question: to what degree does class size impact academic outcomes, and are smaller class sizes the best way to help students succeed and/or keep teachers happy?

No Consensus to Be Found

To avoid getting lost in the morass of adversarial viewpoints on the matter, suffice it to say that different researchers have arrived at different conclusions as to whether small class sizes deliver meaningful improvements to students’ academic performance.

On the one hand, the nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group Parents Across America cites numerous studies that suggest “class size [reduction] is a proven and effective reform,” “class size reduction narrows the achievement gap,” and “class size reduction is cost-effective.” On the other hand, a systematic research review conducted by The Campbell Collaboration recently found that reducing class sizes has “at best a small effect on reading achievement [and]…a negative, but statistically insignificant, effect on mathematics [achievement].”

In any case, until the educational research community arrives at a clearer consensus of the correlation between class size and academic achievement, many school districts would arguably be better-served by focusing on making changes that are more likely to improve student outcomes with a high degree of certainty.

The Power of Professional Development

Expanding professional development programming is among the most obvious ways to facilitate students’ success, regardless of class size. Indeed, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that learning from a high-quality teacher can improve a student’s lifetime earnings by as much as $250,000.

The causal relationship between well-prepared teachers and positive academic outcomes (almost irrespective of mitigating circumstances) is so well-established that the recently implemented Every Student Succeeds Act makes a point of encouraging — and, under certain circumstances, requiring — school districts to overhaul their outdated, ineffective professional development infrastructures.

“The term ‘professional development’ means activities that are an integral part of school and local educational agency strategies for providing educators…with the knowledge and skills necessary to enable students to succeed,” the Act explains. “[These activities] are sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, or short term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom focused.”

Professional development programs that reflect these imperatives not only improve student outcomes, but often keep teachers happy, as well. For instance, according to a 2016 study published in the American Educational Research Journal, improvements to a school’s professional development offerings “have [a strong] relationship with decreases in teacher turnover” — stronger than factors like teachers’ rapport with their peers and even school safety and order.

And while investing in professional development programming might not entirely preclude the possibility of disagreements that rise to the fever pitch seen in Los Angeles, doing so is a surefire way to foster both student success and teacher satisfaction within a district. Of course, finding the requisite resources to make such an investment can be a significant challenge, which is where Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play.

CheckPoint streamlines all of a district’s data collection, organization, validation, and submission processes, ensuring it receives the maximum amount of local, state, and federal funding to which it’s entitled. The debate over the ideal class size will rage on for the foreseeable future, but with CheckPoint, district administrators can secure the funding they need to support teachers and students who are already doing their utmost to make the best of their circumstances — whatever they may be — on a daily basis.

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