Class Size Reduction Expansion

Interesting and well done WaPo article on budget pressures driving some school districts to slightly increase rather than decrease class size. Small classes are not a silver bullet and research pretty clearly indicates that it’s a much weaker — and more expensive — strategy than some others, like improving teacher effectiveness. That’s especially true where there are a dearth of qualified applicants for teaching jobs so reducing class size merely exacerbates quality problems. The research and evidence base here is pretty clear and it is what it is, so contra what a lot of the advocates it’s not something that you get to agree or disagree with any more than you can agree or disagree with gravity. The bottom line is that teacher quality matters more.

But, there can be good reasons to lower class sizes even around this evidence base. For instance, with enough qualified teachers it can improve instruction if teachers change how they teach in response. Or, it can provide a competitive edge in the labor market for schools. And, some strategies, for instance giving high school English teachers fewer students so they can teach more writing but increasing class sizes elsewhere to make it work, are the sort of creative redistribution of resources that we need to innovate with in this field (Ted Sizer basically proposed a version of this years ago in the Horace books).

The thing is, those are deliberate strategies around class size. Adjusting them, one way or the other, in response to budget cuts isn’t much of a proactive strategy. It seems to me that the class size advocates would get a lot further if rather than trying to argue with a pretty accepted evidence base or push for across the board class size reductions they instead put forward some ideas to enhance quality through reduced class size.

5 thoughts on “Class Size Reduction Expansion

  1. Anonymous

    I teach in the DCPS. Have you ever taught in a classroom?
    Only a person who has never taught could be so bold in their opinion on larger class size.

  2. ed notes online

    I followed the advice (when I was called a crazy) and checked and rechecked that teacher survey looking for a question that would ask teachers how they viewed the teacher quality vs. class size reduction. Maybe I missed – it didn’t seem to be asked. One would think, given the nature of this post, that question would be fundamental. But you are not really interested in what teachers think about this issue because the answer is obvious. That teacher quality across the board (except maybe the 5% edge) would improve across the board.

    And it would be nice to see links to the research that “proves” teacher quality matters more than class size reduction.

    It is also interesting that the cost argument is used when it comes to class size reduction, the real reason teacher quality is the hot new thing in rejecting calls for a serious investment in education equal to say, Bear Sterns bailouts or wars.

    A recent presentation at Columbia U about the Tennessee study on class size impact also took some aspects of teacher quality into account and came up with the opposite conclusion.

    The “research” on teacher quality – based on what factors, by the way – as is the teacher survey – it’s about a political agenda, not education reform. How disappointing to the Education Sector that the onslaught going on against teachers due to the “reforms” being pushed by them has resulted in teachers feeling a greater need for a union.

    We’ll expound more at ednotes on how the survey was designed to seek out making inroads into the teaching corps to push this agenda.

  3. Leonie Haimson

    The position of Eduwonk and others in attacking class size reduction reminds me of the climate contrarians who continue to battle the fact of global warming, or before them, the tobacco companies who hired “experts” to dispute the link between smoking and lung cancer.

    Of course teacher quality is important — but there is no proven way to improve it, whereas class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based strategies that through rigorous research, according to the Inst. of Education Sciences, have been shown to increase student achievement.

    Moreover, the argument that somehow there is a conflict or contradiction between improving teacher quality and reducing class size is a canard. In fact, we only know two objective correlates to teacher effectiveness — one is smaller classes, and the other is a higher experience level. And there is now quite a bit of research indicating that our best hope of lowering rates of teacher attrition is to reduce class size. In fact, teachers themselves commonly respond in surveys that smaller classes would be a far better incentive to draw them to high-needs schools, and keep them working there longer than salary enhancements, more professional development, or anything else.

    In fact, the evidence for smaller classes is much stronger than any of the other reforms continually touted by Eduwonk and other inside the beltway groups — such as charter schools, more testing and “data” analysis, or merit pay,which probably is the reason they oppose it so vociferously.

  4. AttorneyDC

    I agree that class size is not the only answer in improving student performance, but it is an important component.

    Smaller class size certainly helps, especially in situations with high-needs students, who require extra individual attention and teacher involvement. This is particularly important with students who are performing below grade level, lack parental support, have emotional or behavior problems, or have learning disabilities.

    I take exception to the idea that students will learn just as well in larger classes, as long as we have “qualified” teachers. In my experience, good teachers AND class size both play a part in student learning.

    I believe that the importance of class size varies with the type of student. In my experience, I found it much easier to teach a class of 30-plus honors 9th grade students than to teach a class of seven or eight students (also 9th graders) with learning disabilities and behavior problems, from low-income homes.

    Increasing class size, especially with low-performing and special needs students, will only create more educational problems for our students.

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