It Doesn’t Matter If Class Size Matters

I’ll admit it: I kind of like low attendance days at school. With fewer students in the classroom the day is calmer and more relaxed; I feel like I have more flexibility to focus in on struggling students. In that sense, I am definitely a fan of smaller classes.

Much has been written about the effect of reducing class size on student achievement, and results are generally mixed, though it seems to have a more positive effect on elementary school students. Yet the policy has a passionate and politically active following, led by the New York-based Class Size Matters.

I’m not going to engage in the debate on the effectiveness of smaller classes; that is for people far more knowledgeable than me. But in a practical sense, whether class size “matters” is the wrong question: we need to be talking about efficiency. Advocating for a policy because it would work without considering its relative cost and viable alternatives is an irresponsible and unrealistic exercise.

In theory, the goal of any education policy is to improve outcomes for kids. With countless policy options and a limited budget, we have no make difficult choices about what those policies should be. Most people would agree that having books at school provides a benefit that justifies the cost; on the other hand, buying each student an xBox so they can play educational games is not considered a worthwhile cost. (Hey, you’ve got to give the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation some credit for not taking the pro-Microsoft path there.)

Of course, it is not always that simple. There are policies that could potentially have massive impacts but are not feasible because of their cost. For instance, I bet our students would be in dramatically better shape academically if each of them had five hours of one-on-one tutoring every evening. Would that “matter”? Of course. But it would be so expensive that it is almost silly to even discuss it as a possibility.

In other words, “mattering” is not enough. Especially in our cash-strapped cities, we need to be looking at efficiency of our policies–whether each dollar we spend is getting us the most in return. Dramatically decreasing class size, though it may help kids, isn’t good policy simply because it costs too much. And anyone who is serious about improving education in this country should switch their focus to feasible alternatives. I fully acknowledge that smaller classes would make my day-to-day easier. But that doesn’t make it good policy.


6 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Matter If Class Size Matters

  1. Jesse Sandschaper

    I came to your site from a post on Ed News Colorado. I think it is odd that your are extolling the virtues of small class sizes just before saying it isn’t worth it. I guess this is ok for a person who will only teach a few years, I hope you decide to stay, but for those of us who are trying to make this a career class size matters a lot. In my experience the people who prefer small classes the most are students.
    One other thing, in many of your posts you treat the fear that many have of privatization as some sort of wild conspiracy theory and ten in a tweet this morning you come out in support of the AEI and for-profit investment in public schools. So which is it, is privatization a wild conspiracy theory or a good idea?

    Two other questions of a more personal nature,
    1. Is your TFA placement at a public or charter school.
    2. Did you attend public schools?

  2. Jacob W Post author

    The point of the post was that whether something “matters” is not the right question in defining policy. The goal is getting the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck.

    Regarding your second comment, I believe you’ve misunderstood what I’ve written. The “conspiracy theory” is that there are evil corporations out there with the nefarious goal of destroying education. As I see it, we should encourage outside interest and investment in our schools. Results matter, not the source.

    1. Jesse Sandschaper

      Finals day here gives me too much time, so to follow up your point is that reduced class size is to expensive to make it worth while and therefore should be abandoned as a solution. What if we took the billions spent on standardized tests and used it to reduce class sizes. This would free up time and resources and allow teachers to be more focused on students.

      On the second point, considering the massive failure of for-profit colleges and the scandals and poor results that have followed for-profit k-12 providers(like K-12) why would we believe that the for-profit sector would be successful in teaching students? For-profit does not make something good just look at the for-profit prison industry. We now have more black males under correctional supervision than were in slavery in 1850. This is something that truly effects students learning at the poorest and most segregated schools in the country. So should I assume you teach at a charter and attended private schools? I know it seems unimportant but it seems that many in the “ed reform” movement have little experience in actual public schools.


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