What number really counts?

A few years ago, someone explained to me that to reduce class sizes by just one student in a district of 10,000 students — the size of, say, Stillwater — you would need to add $750,000 to the budget. If these numbers scale easily (let’s assume they do) then in the state’s largest district — Anoka-Hennepin with 40,000 students — it would take $3 million dollars to reduce class sizes by just one barely noticeable student. That’s a lot of bake sales and car washes.

When we started preparing this year’s Education Guide, I was musing on class sizes. It’s a familiar rallying cry for parental involvement and vote-getting when it comes time to pass a levy. It’s also something, in the nearly untangleable mass of factors that affect our children’s achievement, that’s easy to grasp. Undeniably, large classes drive some parents to opt out of the public schools altogether. A teacher’s attention is a valuable — and expensive — commodity.

In a world where an additional $3 million — or $6 million or $9 million — isn’t dropping into any school district’s budget anytime soon, I started exploring, looking for other solutions to the problem of finite human attention. And that’s how I happened on a new book called The Secret of TSL: The Revolutionary Discovery That Raises School Performance. The author, Dr. William Ouchi, recommends that, instead of counting bodies in a room, we count the number of young faces a teacher has to get to know each year. We can reduce that number in a lot of ways: By shifting resources from the front office to the classroom, by combining related subjects, by shaking up traditional school days, and by getting everybody from the principal on down into the classroom. There are surely many, many more ways to change this number, but the point is, we have to know what the number is — TSL stands for “total student load” and very few districts track it — before we can change it.

Read our interview with Dr. Ouchi on page 22 and let us know: Can you figure out the total student load at your school? How much do you think it matters?

Incidentally, it was Mary Cecconi of Parents United for Public Schools who first put in perspective for me just what it takes to reduce class sizes, when I interviewed her about parental involvement in the education process. It’s just a few steps, she noted, from making cookies for a bake sale to lobbying at the Capitol for funds to reduce class sizes… or total student load.

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