The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Class Size Debates…

Quaid’s AP story about class size is making the rounds of the blogs and the twittosphere.    It’s actually a frustrating story because (a) there really isn’t much of a debate about whether class size matters more than teacher effectiveness, the research is clear it doesn’t, effectiveness matters more and (b) most districts pay little attention to effectiveness when they lay off teachers.  Or much at all.*  Assuming an adequate supply of effective teaching candidates, smaller classes (in the teens kinda small) in the very early grades have some benefits – both to students and as a recruiting strategy for good teachers.  But because districts are so locked-in to their personnel patterns there is very little in the way of creative distribution of teachers so we’re not talking about targeted reductions being at-risk here nor are we talking about really small classes**, more like a student or two here and there and mostly across the board.   For instance, the article cites LA where the problem is not whether classes are larger by one or two kids in middle or high school but rather that average class sizes there are, according to AP, 35-43 kids, to begin with.  That’s nuts.

*’Tis apparently true:  Teachers are mostly treated as interchangeable anyway.  If the economic downturn actually meant more attention to educational productivity it would be a silver lining to an otherwise unfortunate situation…  **There are exceptions, of course, there are always exceptions seeing as there are 13K+ school districts around the country, but in general.

23 Replies to “The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Class Size Debates…”

  1. I think this speaks to the larger issue that is the education community’s inability to accept and ultimately implement action based upon research. Several reputable studies have showed us that: a masters degree in education has little to no benefit to students; beyond five years of experience, teaching experience does not have a strong impact on student achievement; and class size does not nearly have the impact on student achievement as teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, we still pour huge chunks of money into policies that promote false ideas to the detriment of students.

  2. Teacher effectiveness is the most important element to provide quality education for the students. However, a teacher’s effectiveness is severly hindered when certain circumstances are not in place. Yes, a teacher should be able to ‘think outside the box’ to promote real learning experiences. When class sizes are so large that a teacher spends most of the time trying to control the class, then, the opportunity to be effective is not easily attainable. Many classes in today’s world are inclusive classrooms which have students with learning disabilities. The teacher has to make adjustments with this new student population and class sizes need to support these conditions for teacher effectiveness to take place.

  3. I agree that teacher effectiveness should be taken into consideration not just when reduction in force occurs, but when considering placements and when deciding if teachers should remain in their current position. I believe that one year may not be a long enough time for an administrator to obtain a full picture of a teacher, but if they are involved in the classrooms, they could pick up on a whole lot. So many of teaching positions are decided because that is what the teacher wants, not necessarily what is best for the students.

  4. I am a Graduate student at Walden University and I just read the article Becoming Expert Teachers By Robert J. Garmston and I agree effectiveness really matters. To support my thoughts Garmston says to be Professional and effective you must be fluent in your content area, have an in dept understanding of a variety of teaching strategies and which ones are best to use when, you also must know what learning styles are evident in your classroom among your students, have beliefs or standards, be a higher order thinker, and be able to interact with your colleagues to get the best tools for your area you are teaching. If all of these things are evident you will have an effective classroom and the students will leave with and enduring understanding of the subject area.

  5. In teaching Kindergarten, class size is a huge issue. The classrooms only allow for each child to have so much personal space, and with the young ones, trying to promote behaviors of mainting this personal space becomes difficult when the room is overpopulated! It also becomes a struggle when I ask for parent volunteers, yet don’t have many. There is an opportunity for each child to recieve more attention to their needs when volunteers are within the classroom, but without these volunteers, I am left dealing more with “crowd control” than each child’s needs. Because of the budget cuts, we even have less para-educator time which makes state assessments nearly impossible to administer. I believe I am quite effective as a teacher but when I am expected to give reading and math assessments to each child individually and control an entire class simultaneously, it becomes ever difficult.

  6. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when my first-grade class size was reduced from 33 to 20. It had a huge effect on classroom environment and on me. It lowered my blood pressure.

    When I was in graduate school I learned that much of educational research isn’t worth the paper it is written on. Having fifteen or twenty students in a class is much better than 33. That’s just common sense. Only a non-teacher would even doubt such a thing.

  7. From my personal experience, the size of my fourth grade classroom has made a difference in learning. The more the students, the more challeging it becomes to give all of them the same amount of attention. As a result, I feel like I have to pick and choose which students need more attention depending on their needs. I feel all kids, no matter what ability or circumstance, should get an equal amount, so it becomes very difficult. This does vary from year to year depending on the make-up of that particular classroom, but ultimately I think I am more apt to effectively implement my curriculum and reach a higher number of students when the class size is lower.

  8. When first reading this blog entry, I was intrigued by Andrew Rotherham’s insight that districts tend to base hiring decisions on their own “personal patterns.” I live and teach in California, and from my understanding, a majority of districts are limited by the laws of that state. Take for example hiring and reducing the force based on seniority rather than effectiveness; it seems absurd to most people. However, when one has an understanding of the laws that govern district decisions in this matter, one realizes how new legislation is badly needed. District hands are tied in many ways by the current laws on the books.

    In regards to class size reduction, although I agree that teacher effectiveness is more influential to student achievement than class size, class size does have a huge impact on student learning. Mr. Rotherham does state that smaller class sizes make some difference in the early grades. Teaching kindergarten has driven this point home for me.

    When I began teaching kinder, I had 33 students in my classroom with a Class Size Reduction Teacher (CSR) to help me. Even with the help, having that many 5-year olds in one room sometimes felt more like herding sheep than teaching. Having management routines established and being an effective teacher is critical with this many students! After 3 years of teaching with 33, my school site transitioned to an “early bird/late bird” schedule; half of my 33 came in the morning, and half in the afternoon. Although I had the same routines and effective teaching in place, my student achievement increased significantly with the smaller class size. I no longer had a CSR, but was able to spend more quality time instructing students. They were more attentive, responsive, and motivated. In my limited experience, I think both teacher effectiveness and smaller class sizes are important to increase student achievement and motivation.

  9. I agree that effectiveness is important in a teacher. One of the higher priorities for school districts should be to train, and keep, teachers to be effective enough to be considered expert teachers described in the article “Becoming Expert Teachers (Part One),” By Robert J. Garmston. Among the characteristics that Garmston uses to describe the expert teacher are: deep content knowledge, “complex understandings of teaching strategies, are responsive to a wider range of learning styles and culturally diverse classes,” and, to sum it up, always reflects on experiences, (Garmston, 98).

    Not all teachers have the capacity, or the desire, to reach the level of expert teacher. But, how do districts keep those teachers that do have the capacity or desire to be expert teachers? And if school districts never learn how to use their resources to train teachers to be effective, how will they ever know how effective their teachers can be?

  10. Tiffany: Well said. As a former teacher, I too believe that class size matters. It appears to matter more for some student populations than for others. For instance, I taught a class of 30+ honors high school history students with no significant classroom management problems: The students were self-motivated and on-task without my constant supervision. However, at another school, I taught low-income students with learning disabilities. The classes were very small (under 10 students per class); they needed to be small because the students required individual attention from the teacher to stay on task and complete the assignments.

  11. I believe that class size is important to be an effective teacher. I teach at a school that caps its classroom size at 20 students. We get many students from public schools whose classroom size is 30 plus and their learning skills are poor at best. Most of the first half of the year is teaching them how to read for content, write an essay, and study for tests none of which could be done effectively with a large classroom.

  12. What I fail to comprehend is why so many commentators reject that bulk of the peer reviewed research on class size.

    “I believe that class size…has x effect on teacher quality.”

    Believe? Faith? Seriously, this isn’t 200 BC, we’ve had an enlightenment folks.

    These characters are no different than people who say…

    “I believe creationism because I’ve had personal experiences in looking at the sunset…”

    “I believe the economy is better under president x [who I voted for].”

    This is why we have peer reviewed research that uses a scientific method to deduce reliable findings. Rand, Brookings, Mathematica these groups produce real research not “beliefs.” Now, that said if the research is conflicted there is some room for argument and debate among which research study is most valid, but to act like our “beliefs” from anecdotal or personal experience should guide education policy is the reason why economists, professors of medicine, and so on an so forth laugh at the research produced by schools of education for its methodological weakness and its commitment to the ideological preferences of its professional practitioners.

  13. As stated in the other comments and personally experienced by me, the difference between 33 and 20 in primary grades is significant. I had 42-43 high school seniors at one time (in two classes) and that number of students, even for an effective, experienced teacher, is almost unmanageable. And these were relatively “good” kids, in a room that could handle that number of students.

    If the research says small classes don’t make a difference, I want to know what they consider “small” and where the class sizes were before they got “small”.

    And my MA didn’t make me a better classroom teacher. I’ll support that research.

    Love the blog and the discussions.

  14. “All the research suggests the number of kids is much less important than who is teaching the class,” said Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “In the face of budget problems, allowing class size to move a little bit makes all the sense in the world.”
    “In fact, to the extent you put ineffective teachers into classrooms, you’re much better off by keeping larger classes with effective teachers,” he said.
    This is a perfect example of the disconnect between the educational research community and the real-teacher community. It’s like saying “Keeping your roof in good repair is far less important than keeping it from catching fire. To the extent that some houses are on fire, you’re far better off by focusing on fire prevention.”

    Of course teacher effectiveness is more important than class size. If you put a folding chair in front of seven kids and a live teacher, effective or otherwise, in front of 27 kids, the kids with the teacher would learn more than the kids with the chair.

    But that’s not the point. You’ve got two independent variables: teacher effectiveness and class size. They both have a profound effect on student learning. We don’t need a study to tell us that. What we need is a way to get better teachers in front of smaller classes. Policy makers love studies that get them off the hook. If we got the average class size down to 16 students, the researchers would be amazed at the sudden increase in teacher effectiveness and student learning.

  15. Tom,

    You do realize that researchers have methodological techniques that enable them to disentangle two scary independent variables. It’s called multivariate regression and has only been around for decades. Therefore, your analogy with the lawn chairs just doesn’t really apply. The research that has looked into class size finds that its independent (in other words holding all other things constant like teacher effectiveness) impact on student outcomes is minimal (the major exception as Andy noted being in lower grades and with huge cuts in size, i.e., The Tennessee Study). The research also shows that the independent effect of effective teaching carries tremendous weight and is the single largest school level factor capable of increasing student achievement from its baseline level.

    I mean that’s just what the research says. It said it yesterday, it says it today, and it will say it tomorrow. No amount of personal experience is going to change that. It’s called peer reviewed for a reason: it observes a huge N in a tightly specified model and replicates it over and over again so that we don’t have to rely on “individual” experiences.

    Would anyone take a drug that the American Journal of Medicine did a huge study on and found it killed people or didn’t work just because they personally thought it gave them some results? Pop away!

  16. The research is not nearly as clear as you guys indicate. Tom is exactly right. It depends. And one of the things it depends upon is that the students who we are failing tend to be those who need smaller class size. (If you think that multivariate regression can solve all of the methodological problems, without qualitative research including conversations with teachers, and that the answers will be the same today, yesterday, and tommorrow, then you are too arrogant to disentangle the multiple threads of reality.

    Many of the mistakes come frome reading just the Executive Summaries and not considering context, as Tom also reminded us by citing Hanushek. California, for instance, ran into that problem. If you don’t have enough of a supply of qualified teachers, then class reduction efforts can backfire.

    So, the question should be how we recruit and retain more teaching talent. Reducing class size is one way. Protecting teachers’ due process and contractual rights is another essential ingredient. We can reform seniority and evaluations, but this loose talk about laying off teachers by perceived effectiveness, as opposed to negotiated agreements, would be a horrible mistake.

    Proposals that would turn teachers into widgets, even if the report that recommends it is entitled “The Widget Effect” would just make things worse. I’ve have up to 70 seniors for a month with few problems though they learned less. Last year my class with 44 sophomores never recovered from the overload. I suspect that the tipping point in a tough class of freshmen ordinarily is in the mid-20s. But add just a few more students who are mentally ill, Seriously Emotionally Disturbed, who have just buried a family member, or a gang war, and the tipping point drops dramatically.

    If you believe that statisical formulas can approximate these realities, I’ve got a research project for you.

  17. Sorry, Michael, but I think you have to temper what you read in the research with what you see in the classroom. I agree: Teacher effectiveness is king. But can you honestly say that an effective teacher with 25 students will be just as effective with 35, 40, 50 students?

    And I think the main reason why researchers in medicine, economics and so forth laugh at us is not our committment to statistical findings, but the quality of the data that makes up those findings. I’ve seen that data as it’s created, and frankly, most of it is garbage.

  18. Tom, I totally agree with your view point. Teacher effectiveness is very important however, when you are comparing a class size of 20 to one of 35 students, the teacher will not have the same effectiveness. The teacher cannot give the same individual attention to every student in a larger class size than in a smaller number class. Another point to think about is when there is a larger number of students in a class, the teacher might have more discipline/classroom management issues.

  19. All of this is a “chicken and egg” debate. Smaller classrooms vs. effective teachers — it’s all hampered and affected by the same common denominator:

    Too many of our kids come into the school systems without the social skills, character traits and values that allow them to learn successfully in a classroom enviornment. This has a negative impact on EVERY single aspect of the learning environment.

    It doesn’t matter if you have a classroom size of 20/25/30 — even a few kids who are unruly and disruptive, who lack respect and consideration for the needs of others, can ruin the learning experience for ALL.

    The reality is, we will NEVER be able to reduce class sizes to the point of educational nirvana. Smaller classrooms means more classrooms, means more teachers, means more schools, means more administrators, ad nauseum.

    On the other hand, if, as statisitics show, our teachers today are losing 30/40/50% of productive classroom time dealing with disruptive students, this IS something we have a chance of dealing with.

    It’s not about reducing class sizes to the point where they are “manageable” — it’s about managing the classrooms sizes we have and with an emphasis on social skills education and discipline in the schools, we can improve the learning opportunities for everyone involved.

  20. I was under the impression that the research wasn’t settled on this one with regards to class size in the upper grades. The best research I’ve seen for the younger grades is that STAR study in Tennessee, but that’s hasn’t been applied to the upper grades yet, has it? As for “teacher effectiveness”, what does that term even mean? Who gets to determine what “effective” is, and until you hammer out that definition, this whole conversation is moot.

  21. I was just rereading this blog and, after reading Joe’s comments, thought about how ridiculous educational research is for the most part. There are just so many variables and definitions are often fuzzy. As Joe asks in regard to teacher effectiveness, “what does that term even mean?” Of course there is no agreement; therefore there can be no “scientific” conclusions.

    Here are hypothetical questions based on situations I have witnessed: One teacher is a grandmotherly type who is “relaxed” in her teaching but beloved by the children. Her students love coming to school each day. Another teacher in the same grade is very focused and has well-planned lessons each day and prepares her students carefully for the tests at the end of the year. Her students do much better on the tests than “Grandma’s,” but they can’t wait for school to end each day. Who is more effective? How important are the children’s attitudes toward school? Can they be accurately measured? Are they more important than test scores? The variables are just endless. I am not a scientist but I know that I don’t know. Remember that a lot of the research in education is done so an academic can earn tenure; that’s the purpose of it. Yes, we should continue to seek answers to these questions, but let’s proceed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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