From reader Aggrivated, comes this Salon article about...sigh, class size. Really? Still?
I'm going to say up-front that I believe it matters. And whether or not it is measurable, it matters. I say this because I did tours for every single level of school and the number one (or two) question was ALWAYS, "What is the average class size?" It may not matter to Michelle Rhee but it sure does matter to parents. Because beyond academics, parents want to believe their child will get some kind of attention from the teacher. (Kate Martin was telling me that some of her son's friends - middle of the road academically - said they never tended to get noticed or called on and that the teacher tended to stick to the kids on the outer parts of the classroom. That's heartbreaking.)
I've also never found a teacher who said to me, "Nah, doesn't really matter at the end of the day."
I say this because we're all parents. Remember giving the birthday party where every kid showed up and you had 10-15 kids running around? We all know how hard it is to keep kids focused at a birthday party. Think about that nearly doubled AND you're teaching. C'mon.
Here's the article (cleverly) titled, "Does Class Size Matter?" It's based on a book "The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve." It's a fairly well-rounded article with some glaring exceptions.
The first one is Michelle Rhee. From the article:
Not long ago, she told a group of reporters that with the right preparation, bigger classes, not smaller ones, would be an effective way to raise test scores and save money. "The way that I think would make sense is to identify the most highly effective teachers in a particular district, and think about assigning a few more students to each of their classrooms," Rhee says. Those same fiscal conservatives and corporate-style school managers accuse the teachers unions of pushing the small-is-good agenda to the detriment of kids.
Michelle, what about the other factors? What the "highly effective" teacher has a homogeneous class? A gifted class? I'll use Charlie's favorite example: pick up all the teachers at Eckstein and switch them with all the teachers at Aki. Think the Eckstein teachers will do better because they are better teachers? I doubt it. You have other factors in every classroom than teacher quality.
And logistically? What do you tell parents touring the school who notice Class X is smaller than Class Y even though it's the same grade? Do you cop to saying, "Oh the Class X teacher is a better teacher so we give him more students then the teacher who teaches Class Y."
Then the author says tries to suss out why teachers (and their unions) endorse a smaller class size:
In general, the powerful teachers unions do endorse small class size. Although it is popular to bash the unions, you can look at their enthusiasm for small class size in a couple of different ways. It may be an honest reflection of the experience of the people who are on the front lines in education. A great number of classroom teachers point out that they can barely learn the names of thirty students by the end of the first month of school, much less pitch instruction to different learning styles so the students can learn best. Teachers also describe a sense of connectedness that can grow in a small class, creating a learning environment that is intimate, flexible, and, when it works, highly productive. A more cynical take is that the union support for small classrooms is part of an effort to protect the working conditions of its members. Smaller class size makes it easier for teachers to teach. It takes much less time to grade fifteen essays than thirty.
The most cynical take is that smaller class size also increases the number of teachers who are hired and strengthens the union that supports them.
So teachers would want smaller class sizes so (1) more teachers are employed and (2) they want easier teaching lives. Say that about the union but don't say that about teachers in general.
Everyone wants their job to be easier but in this case it wouldn't just be easier for the teacher but gain more attention for each child.
The author does make one good point:
It means that small class size alone is not going to help underachieving kids catch up and stay on par with high achievers. And even though the rate of learning did not continue to accelerate, the positive effects of small class size were long-lasting.
There is NO silver bullet. We all know that by now.
When the kids who were assigned to small classes in kindergarten through third grade got to high school, they were earning higher grades and were more likely to complete advanced academic classes, take college admissions tests, and graduate. Later analysis of this data, and additional data from a 1996 study of small class size in low-income schools in Wisconsin, highlights an interesting point: African American kids who attended predominantly African American schools get a bigger boost from small class size than did white kids.
The debate goes on.