Tag Archives: class size

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.

The Need for Innovation in Schools

P.S. 114 in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn made headlines this past week with a pair of instructional reforms that run against traditional elementary school orthodoxy. According to Principal Darwin Smith, one teacher will deliver a lesson to a class of 60 while another teacher assists struggling students. Furthermore, students from 3rd-5th grade will switch classes, allowing teachers to focus on 2 subjects instead of the traditional 4.

Unsurprisingly, the former reform in particular has caused an uproar among advocates of smaller class sizes. As Leonie Haimson, executive director of the NYC-based group Class Size Matters, is quoted in the article: “I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s an unsustainable model that has no evidence to support it. It’s a recipe for chaos.”

I’m not going to comment at length on the merits of the ideas themselves; that is for the another post. What is relevant is that there are strong arguments in their favor: two teachers in the same room could serve a dual purpose of helping struggling students and giving the co-teacher an opportunity to learn from a master; the 3rd-5th graders switching classes allows teachers to devote more time to making high-quality lessons. In other words, they could plausibly work. And that kind of innovation and experimentation should absolutely be encouraged in our schools.

It’s no secret that our education system is fraught with arbitrary traditions and anachronism. We continue to cling to summer vacation despite the consequences of the “summer slide.” Researchers say that school starts too early, yet kids nationwide spend first period wiping sleep from their eyes instead of learning. So who says that the traditional model of one teacher in front of a class of 20-25 through 5th grade is the best? Especially in a time of limited resources, schools should constantly be reflecting and making logical changes when warranted. It would be one thing if our current system effectively served all kids. But we know that’s not true. So why not ask our principals and administrators to think as we hope our students do–with reflection, logic, and creativity? Of course, there is a possibility that the reforms in P.S. 114 will not improve schools. But we can’t let fear of failure halt innovation in a system that sorely needs it. It is unfair to kids to do otherwise.