Monday, June 20, 2011

On Class Size

Waiting for Superman made the claim (or at least supported the claims of others) that the most important thing in the classroom is a good teacher. Good teachers, the film purports, are more important than seemingly any other factor: poverty, parental involvement, classroom resources, etc. Of course, we know all those things (including good teaching, that incredibly difficult to define but easy to identify attribute) are incredibly important to the education of a human being in our schools.

Bill Gates, a huge supporter of good teachers (and finding ways to evaluate them), is also a big fan of classroom size arguments. He outlined in a well-read opinion piece a plan to put 4 to 5 more students in with the top 25% of teachers (once -- and if -- we figure out a way to identify who those teachers actually are). This is just shy of the 7-to-10 fewer students per class range that was shown to have "significant long-term effects on student achievement and other meaningful outcomes."

I'm not going to sit here and re-hash what has already been mentioned in a great article by Peter Smagorinsky. However, the idea of adding students to classes is not a new one, and represents quite a dangerous slope.

First off, again, this is nothing new. Class sizes have gone down when the economy allows for more teachers to work, and they have gone up as layoffs become more commonplace. It is an easy way for a district to try and save some money, and it's also an easy way to allow more student-teacher interaction when the money is there.

However, there are two slippery slopes involved here. The first has to do with which teachers have larger classes. We still don't have a way of identifying good teachers. Student test scores are not an effective way of measuring teachers, especially when that's not what the tests are designed to do. So how can we have that be for just good teachers? And what would cause those good teachers to want to do that? For the higher work load? So they can have less time helping each individual student? Administration's decision? What would happen, then, to those who aren't identified as the top teachers? That's not a battle I'd want in my school. Higher pay? Even though the Gates Foundation has a survey that says 83% of teachers would take a higher pay to teach more students, I don't see any numbers that say the top 25% of teachers even have a majority of them in that 83%. I'd rather have a teacher who was actually known to be good than one who just wanted more money for more students. But we don't have that metric. Not yet, and maybe not ever -- we'll see.

The other slippery slope has to do with the class sizes. Sure, there's evidence that adding 4 or 5 students to a class won't significantly change the outcomes for each student. But what happens when we do that twice in a couple-year period? Then we're past that 7-10 student mark, and outcomes are being effected. And let's go back a few years. Class sizes are already getting larger; in some areas, 4 to 5 more students a class would be over 7 students more than a couple years ago. Wouldn't, then, there likely be some adverse consequences for those students?

The thing is, to some extent, class size doesn't matter. But that extent is very small. It does matter for a lot of reasons (again, check out Peter Smagorinsky's article for a brief summary). And my last point: even though it may be better to have the best teachers have a few more students, what happens to those struggling teachers who are inadvertently included in that group? What about the 4th-year teacher who has done pretty darn well because they've had a class size they could manage, but now is overwhelmed with 5 more students? Where's the support for them?

We treat these "good teachers" as if they're not also in need of all the support they can get from administrators and fellow teachers. If we continue to put all the weight of our country's future on their shoulders, they're going to shatter. For a while, the conversation was on special needs students. Now, it's class size. What will tomorrow's be, and at what point will our good teachers collapse?


  1. Very well written and quite interesting. Thank you for so many links to good sources.

  2. I think it was in Dale Parnell's book "Logolearning: Searching for Meaning and Education" (sorry, don't have the book with me)...He talked about Japanese schools...where the teachers are given slightly larger class sizes, but more time to prep. Instead of five classes of 20, they might have 4 classes of 25. The extra period is dedicated to brainstorming strategy sessions with other teachers, on how to teach their content more effectively.