Claire Fiddian-Green is the President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
Last week, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce released a report commissioned from Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, which found that students in small school districts have lower academic achievement results than students in larger districts. The study’s authors point to resource constraints at small districts – defined as districts with enrollment of less than 2,000 students – that limit their ability to offer a broader array of rigorous course offerings, like AP Calculus and AP Chemistry. 19 percent of Indiana’s public school students are enrolled in districts with enrollment below the 2,000-student threshold, and the authors recommend implementing policy and technical assistance mechanisms that encourage the merger of small corporations to free up resources and improve student achievement outcomes.
What should smaller school districts that merge do with their additional resources? One idea is to raise teacher salaries to help tackle Indiana’s teacher shortage, particularly for those teaching hard-to-staff subjects like math and science. According to a 2016 survey of district superintendents, 47% of districts in Indiana report teacher shortages in math and 55% report teacher shortages in science. These are deeply troubling findings for a state with an economy heavily reliant upon Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) industries like advanced manufacturing and the life sciences. If we can’t provide Hoosier students with a strong STEM education, how will we equip them for careers in high-wage, high-demand sectors?
Larger districts can also free up resources to raise STEM teacher salaries. One way to accomplish this without increasing overall K-12 expenditures is by increasing class size while simultaneously ensuring teachers spend less time in the classroom, so that they can devote more time to lesson planning and can focus on high-quality teaching. According to international education guru Andreas Schleicher – Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris – years of international benchmarking data clearly show that the quality of teaching matters more than class size when it comes to student achievement. And other countries that outperform the United States while spending less money on K-12 education have found larger classroom sizes coupled with more professional support for teachers throughout the school day to be a recipe for success. These patterns are borne out in research from the U.S., too.
There are no simple solutions to improving student achievement in Indiana, but educators, parents, policy makers and other community leaders must make addressing the STEM teacher shortage a top priority. The future of our state requires that we make difficult but necessary decisions today. Two ideas include small school corporation consolidation, and a higher student-teacher ratio in classrooms. Each of these approaches would enable schools to increase salaries for those teachers specializing in hard-to-staff, critically important STEM subjects.