Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's plans for reshaping K-12 education has injected an old debate into the presidential race: Do smaller classroom sizes produce better students?
Speaking to teachers and educational leaders of a West Philadelphia charter school on Thursday, the former Massachusetts governor said that his experience has taught him that a good education is not necessarily tied to class size, but rather a school having the right mix of strong teachers, parental involvement and sound leadership in the administration ranks.
Some of the teachers on the panel challenged his assertion, and the Democratic National Committee gleefully blasted out emails highlighting the exchanges.
Mr. Romney's visit to the Universal Bluford Charter School came a day after he turned his attention to the nation's education system, telling a crowd in Washington that "millions of children are getting a Third World education," and calling that failure the "civil rights issue of our era."
He pledged as president to expand school choice, to make it easier for parents to evaluate schools, and to reward states that do the best job of training and retaining good teachers.
President Obama's re-election team responded by attacking Mr. Romney's record, including his history on class size, which Democrats and the teachers' unions that support them have long held are a key element of a strong education.
"As governor he vetoed programs that would've helped reduce class sizes in the earliest grades where individual attention is the most important," said Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman. "Romney still believes against all evidence that smaller class sizes are harmful. None of this helps students in Massachusetts get ready for college and the workforce."
On Thursday, Mr. Romney broached the subject minutes into his roundtable meeting.
"I came into office and talked to people and said, 'What can we do to improve our schools?' " Mr. Romney said. "A number of folks said we need smaller classroom sizes, that will make the biggest difference."
Mr. Romney, though, said that some of the districts with the smallest classroom sizes had some of the poorest performing students.
"Just getting smaller classrooms didn't seem to be the key," he said.
Some teachers pushed back.
"I can't think of any teacher in the whole time I've been teaching, over 13 years, who would say that more students would benefit them, and I can't think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids, and only one teacher," said Steven Morris, a music teacher. "So, I'm kind of wondering where this research come from."
Ronald Benner agreed, saying that the technology classes he teaches range anywhere between 23 and 28 students.
"It is large enough, actually it's too large," Mr. Benner said. "And you can give more personalized attention to each student if you have a smaller class size."
Mr. Romney acknowledged that a class of five is better than a class of 50. He also pointed to a study from McKinsey & Company, which he said found that the classroom sizes of some of the highest performing schools across the world are similar to those in the United States.
"So it is not the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems," he said.
Before the conversation turned elsewhere, another teacher chimed in, encouraging Mr. Romney to keep in mind that the definitive study on classroom size, from Tennessee State University, found that small classes are a key to learning between the first grade and third grade.
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