When it comes to classes, size does matter!
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Bill Gates is a marvelous advocate for education in America. He has clearly demonstrated his commitment both in time and money. His views as an extraordinarily successful businessman and an educational outsider are both provocative and productive. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Mr. Gates has outlined a series of constructive proposals for improving U. S. student performance despite the significant financial problems confronting so many school districts.
Some great ideas
One aspect of Mr. Gates analysis is the classroom:
“We know that of all the variables under a school's control, the single most decisive factor in student achievement is excellent teaching. It is astonishing what great teachers can do for their students. Yet compared with the countries that outperform us in education, we do very little to measure, develop and reward excellent teaching. We have been expecting teachers to be effective without giving them feedback and training.”
Most teachers would agree with these comments. I have long argued that the majority of teacher evaluation programs currently in use need some serious improvement. There must be a more comprehensive approach which includes professional evaluators, constant feedback and some student input.
In addition, Mr. Gates is not happy with the use of seniority in teaching.
“The United States spends $50 billion a year on automatic salary increases based on teacher seniority. It's reasonable to suppose that teachers who have served longer are more effective, but the evidence says that's not true. After the first few years, seniority seems to have no effect on student achievement."
“Another standard feature of school budgets is a bump in pay for advanced degrees. Such raises have almost no impact on achievement, but every year they cost $15 billion that would help students more if spent in other ways.”
A solution that must be implemented carefully
Mr. Gates concludes with some thoughts about class size.
“Perhaps the most expensive assumption embedded in school budgets - and one of the most unchallenged - is the view that reducing class size is the best way to improve student achievement. This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same."
“What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”
It is important to note that Mr. Gates is referring to an increase in class size of about 15%. When individuals less knowledgeable interpret enlargement of class size, things go awry. Base on their current budget cuts, the city of Detroit is anticipating classes in excess of 60 in the near future – an increase of 100%. Many classes in New York City are already at those levels. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has postulated that, for excellent teachers, working with large classes is no more difficult than working with smaller ones. He mentioned that he had attended college classes that contained hundreds of students. Of course those classes were at Princeton and Georgetown Law School which more than likely bear little resemblance to an Algebra 1 class in Detroit or New York or anywhere else for that matter.
Great teachers not super heroes
The primary flaw in these arguments is the belief that increasing the size of classes only requires additional furniture. There is no question that an excellent teacher can give high quality instruction to classes of 35 or more while poor ones will struggle no matter how small their audience. But the belief that student learning is unaffected by significantly larger numbers is misguided. A successful teacher has a great many tasks in addition to delivering instruction. Students, like teachers, benefit from consistent and meaningful feedback on their classroom performance. Twice as many students mandates half as much feedback. Any teacher will tell you that grading papers is easily as time consuming as preparing lesson plans. Evaluating 60 quizzes or tests per class would be daunting to say the least. Due entirely to time constraints, comprehensive exams would have to be replaced by short answer or multiple choice ones. Extended essays and research papers would disappear. Answering student questions and individualizing instructions, the strengths of the best educators, would have to be curtailed. Science labs would become virtually impossible due to a shortage of equipment and safety concerns. Group projects and presentations would be untenable. Even the simple acts of taking attendance, posting grades and parent conferences could become overwhelming. At the very least, they would require far too much valuable time. The quality of the educational experience for students in these significantly larger classes would suffer greatly.
In the proposal by Mr. Gates he mentions that the vast majority of teachers would gladly take on more students if their pay was increased. Unfortunately, this survey was of all teachers not just excellent ones. I suspect that if that question were only asked of the best educators there might be a different result. But even if the top teachers did agree, one stumbling block would remain. While tactics could be put in place to increase salaries, no one has found a method of adding more hours to the day.
It is true that the success of any class rests squarely on the shoulders of the teacher and creating more great teachers is the key to any future improvement of our schools. They need to be identified, rewarded and emulated. Having them teach a few more students makes perfect sense on many levels. But too much of any good thing can lead to bad outcomes resulting in further degradation of the educational process and outcomes in the United States. Proceed with caution—class size does matter.