Even More Class Size

Per all this, over at Flypaper Jamie O’Leary makes a smart observation about the class size debate re last week’s AP story.  It also speaks to this more general problem of “on the one hand, on the other hand” reporting of education research and education evidence even in the cases when there actually are not two hands…In this case, there is a debate about how much class size matters to student outcomes but no serious debate about whether smaller classes matter more to student learning than effective teachers.

Update:  Goldstein goes typology below.

10 Replies to “Even More Class Size”

  1. When you add a few kids to a class, you’re probably talking more about teacher time than educational quality. There’s no research that says that going from 24 kids to 30 harms their learning. But for the teacher, everything now takes about 25% longer. More papers to look at, more kids to work individually with, etc.

    Teachers routinely take up the slack in situations like this. And it hurts their profession. Teachers routinely work well past their mandated contract hours and days. This only gives away free resources to the system. Teachers would be smart to institute a national “work your contract” plan. This would have an effect on student learning. But it would also uncover the secret “labor deal” that’s been going on for decades between districts and their teachers — we’ll pay you for X if you do Y hours; but in reality, you’ll do 35% more, right?

    One of the reasons most reform efforts don’t get off the ground is that teachers are maxed out. It’s their own fault; they max themselves out voluntarily. But the result is the same: no capacity for growth; no willingness to change.

    I just took a look at the DOE’s 19 criteria for the Race to the Top money. Every one of them takes more time and effort. Where will this time and effort come from if educators are “spending” it freely now?

  2. Steve: Well said. As a former teacher, I agree with you that teachers often work well over the contract hours, and it’s a major problem. It’s difficult to stop them, for a number of reasons. First, teachers who do not have tenure may receive poor evaluations and be fired for poor performance if they do not complete all the necessary work (even if they have to do it on their own time). Second, teachers are usually in this profession because they want to help students and the students are the first line who suffers in a “work to the contract” strike: They don’t get college recommendations, or after school help or interesting lesson plans. Third, I found that NOT putting in the extra work to create solid lesson plans, follow up on student discipline referrals, meet with parents, etc. can make the class time unpleasant. If classes are unorganized, lessons not thoroughly planned, student discipline procedures not tracked, teaching can be pretty miserable for the teacher, as well as for the students.

  3. Well said Attorney DC.

    Most secondary teachers have in the range of 20 to 25 hours of time directly with the kids.

    This is where things get tricky.

    1. Attorney DC knows that to do a reasonably good job with those 20 to 25 hours, a teacher needs to put in an additional 35 to 40 hours per week. Otherwise, at least in a high-poverty school, the classes will suck.

    2. However, there are also teachers who put in an additional 20 or so hours per week.

    3. And a third cohort that puts in almost NO additional hours. They use old lesson plans, and during each period, they knock out a little work – ie, grade Period 3 papers during Period 4 while kids work “independently.”

    Cohort 1 DESPERATELY wants an honest conversation about workload.

    Cohort 2 has pretty decent hours already, benefits from any conversation which pretends that ALL teachers (including them) are like Cohort 1.

    Cohort 3 LIKES the hazy approach to out-of-class hours, and want to BLOCK Cohort 1 teachers from anything that might lead to accountability.

  4. GGW: Thanks for your input. I think there’s something to your theory, though of course you realize that Cohort 2 (working about 40-45 hours per week) is still probably working 5-10 hours above and beyond their contract. To be honest, this situation was one of the reasons I left education to pursue a law degree. It drove me nuts how teachers (especially good teachers) were constantly taken advantage of in the workplace.

    Looking forward to more discussion on this and related subjects.

  5. My mother, in her 30th and final year of teaching, got her workload down to about 45 hours a week without compromising quality. But even she will admit she had to learn a number of things in order to pull this off.

    One of those things was the futility of grading papers. Research shows that work graded away from students is the worst kind of feedback we can possibly give them. By focusing on student self-assessment and individual student conferences, she saved about 10 hours a week that would in the past have gone to grading.

    Another big savings came from making kids more independent. She assigned jobs to various kids which everyone rotated through. This helped her keep a cleaner, more organized classroom and handle a number of other things that in the past would have taken an extra half hour a day or so.

    Finally, she just made up her mind to leave school at a certain time each day. This meant she only had so much time to get her work done. As the old saying goes, “Work expands to fill the time allotted.” And this is just as true in teaching as anywhere else.

    I’ve known many well-organized and talented teachers who can get teaching down to a manageable workload. A “work the contract” approach would force teachers to think about what really makes a difference and what doesn’t. And that might be the biggest lesson of all.

  6. While class size is defiantly not a be-all-end-all in education in general, it can be a breaking factor in student achievement in the primary grades. Maybe a 10th grade teacher whose class goes from 25 to 30 will have to put in a little more time and resources, but a Kindergarten teacher (me!) whose class size goes from 25 to 30 is doomed. Even an experienced vet will have difficulty with classroom management. Who can keep 30 5-yr olds on task without a constant struggle? The classroom stops being a place for learning at that point and becomes just a place for discipline. Since our nations biggest gaps in student achievement are already formed by the time students reach 3rd grade, more attention to class size in the primary grades, I think, is key.

  7. Small class sizes, applied universally, would be an educational catastrophe. This is the consequence of the fact that class size has little effect on outcomes, while teacher quality has a substantial effect.

    Suppose you have a million classrooms with a million teachers. You decide that tomorrow, you will cut class size by one third. This means you have to go out today and hire 500,000 new teachers. None of the 500,000 were able to claim a teaching job yesterday. If there were a perfect relationship between teacher quality and the ability to obtain and keep a teaching job (we wish), tomorrow, one third of your students would be taught by a teacher worse than the worst of yesterday’s staff. In any event, one third of the kids in your best teacher’s class would be booted out, and subjected to an inferior teacher.

    As it turns out, the relationship between teacher quality and the ability to obtain and keep a teaching job is not perfect, so the damage wouldn’t be so extreme. Your teacher dragnet would sweep up new hires who were well-qualified to work in the classroom. But even here, the kids would be better off if you maintained current class size, fired your existing losers, and replaced them with the quality new hires.

    In fact, you could give one-third of your students a superior educational experience, at no cost to their peers, by firing the least one third of your teachers. That would free up enough payroll to give your good performers 50% raises, to compensate them for their larger class sizes and keep the quality of your applicant pool high.

    Clearly, there are limits to this approach. But what are they? We see good outcomes in overseas classrooms with 40 or more students. that’s just one data point. When does it make sense to bring in another, perhaps inferior, teacher to share the load? We should be actively researching the effect of much larger class sizes on achievement, including the interaction between teacher quality and class size.

  8. JKH: Two problems with your suggestion of INCREASING class size: One, grading and paperwork. For middle and high school teachers, increasing class size from (for instance) 30 to 40 kids would increase grading requirements by 1/3. Assuming the number of periods taught each day remained constant for each teacher (usually 5), you are increasing the grading workload by 33 1/3%, from 150 students per day to 200 students per day. This would also impact other paperwork like progress reports, report cards, and IEP’s for students with learning and emotional disabilities. I doubt the teachers would be paid more. In effect, you’d be asking teachers to increase their unpaid overtime work, while keeping up the quality of their lessons and extracurricular involvement.

    Two: Classroom management. Increasing the number of students in each class makes it more difficult to keep the students on track and focused, especially if the classrooms are not built for large classes (the students will be crammed in together).

    There may be solutions to these problems, but I didn’t see them addressed in your comment. How would you respond?

  9. JKH: I didn’t notice your suggestion of giving teachers significant raises, in light of significantly increasing their workload. That may be a suggestion, but I believe it has two problems: One, I don’t see districts voluntarily increasing teacher salaries by 30-50% and Two, many teachers may not want to work that many more hours, even if they are paid 30% more. For instance, a teacher earning $30,000 per year would be paid perhaps $40,000 under your plan. I’m not sure teachers (especially teachers with families) would want to work 10+ additional hours per week for a net takehome pay increase of about $7,000 after taxes.

  10. I’ve studied the class size question at bit and based on the results in California, there is no statistically significant improvement in test scores of students in smaller classes than students in larger classes. See for example: http://www.supportingevidence.com/Education/Academ_perf_v_class_sizeA.html.

    The bigger effect was that of creating a large shortage of qualified teachers when smaller class sizes caused most districts to have to hire more teachers, reducing the number of qualified teachers in classrooms, through inventions like ‘Emergency’ credentials. See http://www.supportingevidence.com/Education/NAEP_Read_v_teach_cert_2007A.html

    In public schools, students having teachers with more experience do have somewhat higher test scores, as shown here: http://www.supportingevidence.com/Education/NAEP_Read_v_teach_exper_2007A.html

    Scott Gibson
    ‘worth a thousand words’

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