I don’t disagree with Hendrick Hertzberg very often, but I think this is wrong:
Short of abolishing the whole crazy system of local school boards financed by local property taxes and replacing it with an all-powerful national Ministry of Education financed by the federal income tax, I’ve always believed that the best feasible “educational reform” is, precisely, smaller class sizes.
For one thing, we need to start out with the fact that decreasing class size isn’t an alternative to addressing school finance issues and the lack of equity involved. Obviously, to have smaller classes you need more teachers and that would cost more money. And more money should be spent, especially on schools with lots of poor students (see this from Robert Gordon for some proposals to improve funding issues). But even once we’re assuming that struggling underfunded schools are going to be getting more money, I don’t think it’s totally clear that reducing class size is the best use of the marginal dollar.
There are already a lot of difficulties involved in getting the best staff available into the schools that need them the most. If you simply expand the number of people you’re trying to hire for what are currently the least-desirable positions, you’re going to wind up decreasing the average quality of your staff when we really need to increase it. Clearly, there are a lot of schools in the United States and perhaps some of them have class sizes so large that reducing them is really the most pressing need. But in most cases, I would say that creating financial incentives to better fill hard-to-staff positions is going to be a better use of money than creating new positions.