Class Size (Again)

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.


Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Name said…
I agree that relationships suffer with larger classes. A teacher may cover the same amount of material but students don't get as much personal attention to get specific feedback on their understanding. annonymous@3:46 I hope your sentence long signature saVes you from getting delete. In the future, consider using the Name url feature, its still annonymous.
Anonymous said…
A question for all of us if you had to pick - would you want your child in a room of 28 first grade students with an amazingly strong teacher or in a classroom with 20 students with an average/satisfactory teacher?

Name said…
I would prefer an amazing teacher w/ 28 kids but I wouldn't take the chance of ending up w/ an adequate teacher and 28 kids. The truth is that there aren't enough amazing teachers to go around and we have to structure our schools based on who we have. Having smaller class sizes also make it easier for developing teachers to try new things and have the energy to take on bigger projects. If you've ever worked with large groups of kids you know there are things you can do w/ 20 that you can't do with 28 unless you have help. If every class of 28 had an intern or instructional assistant I would prefer that the most.
Anonymous said…
I looked on the Source at my current class sizes. I'm certain that they'll come down as the district adds staff to our school (ha, ha, ha) and we make adjustments in the master schedule, but the current count is laughable: 192 students first semester, 232 second semester.

By the way, I told Board directors--two of them in person--that this could happen. But they dismissed me because, after all, I'm merely a teacher.

PC said…
" The truth is that there aren't enough amazing teachers to go around and we have to structure our schools based on who we have."

Wow - that's putting it out there bluntly. What do people think? Is this accurate? I agree, frankly. There are not enough amazing teachers out there to go around. How do we change that? How can we grow amazing?

Anonymous said…
A big part of ed reform rhetoric
involves marginalizing teachers who are less than "amazing" and
doing PR to make the good teachers seem less than adequate.

How many people in any field are "amazing"? If everyone were
amazing, there would be no amazing.

--Let's not go there
Anonymous said…
I would take small class size. My daughter had an "amazing teacher" with about 22 students in the class and it was an incredible year. My son had the same teacher a few years later with 28 students and it was not so amazing.

Teaching is not scalable because students are not widgets. It boggles me when business types talk about the inefficiency of teaching. All service industries are inefficient!

- north seattle mom
Contrarian said…
Let's not go there writes: "A big part of ed reform rhetoric involves marginalizing teachers who are less than "amazing" and doing PR to make the good teachers seem less than adequate."

--Shouldn't every parent expect their teacher of their student to be amazing? Where is the danger in having that kind of conversation, and who is the conversation focused on when we "don't go there?" The adults in the room, or the students?
Anonymous said…
Of course I would rather have small class size, for the sake of the students and their teachers, but we traded two mediocre private school teachers presiding over a class of 14 for 1 amazing public school teacher with 29 kids and I was overjoyed by the result.

What I wish for that amazing teacher are amazing working conditions and amazing pay.

-mom to 1st and 3rd graders.
anonymous said…
What is the average class size nation wide? We have to remember that WA state has some of the highest class sizes in the country. My nephew goes to school in Portsmouth, NH and has 12 kids in his 3rd grade class. His mom says that is a typical class size there.

Perhaps in Portsmouth class sizes could increase by a kid or two and still be more than manageable, but here in Seattle where we have 28-30 kids in our elementary classes, that is just unthinkable.
peonypower said…
PC asks "how can we grow amazing?" My reply is that we create a work load that does not burn out a teacher. Large class size means more time managing and less time teaching. At the high school level the difference between having a student load of 150 students and having 130 students is huge. More feedback, more involved labs (with better equipment,) more time to help students in class and out of class. Here is some simple math- 148 students, 3 assignments per week, 2.5 minutes to grade, give written feedback, and enter the grade on the source adds up to 18 hours of grading per week outside of your regular work day. We can grow amazing teachers by having a work load that is reasonable and does not force a teacher to choose between their students and their own family or health. I've said this before but the model of the "amazing" teacher as someone who sacrifices everything for their students is not sustainable and in the end not conducive to creating a fantastic teaching corp. Smaller class size translates into a more manageable work load and better teaching.
Jan said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Braessae said…
And, for Contrarian:

When I go read the teacher critique sites, and read what has been written about teachers my kids have had (i.e. -- people I "sort of" know), one thing I am always struck with is that few, if any, teachers are amazing for all kids. Teachers whom my kids loved (and who got generally favorable remarks) invariably got reviews from a few kids who found their approaches to material, or their styles "all wrong" -- for whatever reason. Teachers my kids struggled mightily with (and that other kids struggled with also) had reviews from kids who absolutely loved them. So -- were they "amazing" teachers?

A teacher at one of my kids middle schools (a private school) absolutely turned him around in English -- something NO other teacher, amazing or not, had ever been able to do -- though many had tried. I later found out that 3 or 4 kids in her class found that woman pompous and insufferable -- and the long enthusiastic lectures she occasionally gave (that got MY kid going) -- they abhored. Amazing? We thought so. They didn't.

No doubt, there are some teachers who aren't bringing enough effort and enthusiam and skill to their jobs, or who really don't like teaching but haven't figured out what to do next. This happens everwhere. There are bored bankers, and burned out doctors, and engineers who have secretly figured out that they should have been filmmakers. Clearly, there needs to be a reasonable way to deal with this.

But somehow, to me, saying that every teacher should be "amazing" is ignoring the fact that the relationship between the teacher and the child is generally what drives amazingness. It's almost like -- every child has a "different" teacher, because every child's relationship, needs, strengths, etc. -- all the stuff the kid brings to the table -- informs the relationship, and is different from what every other child in the class brings.

The "amazing teacher" thing seems too much like a cliche or a slogan. I think we need more thoughtful content -- and fewer slogans.
Anonymous said…
That's a great point, and comment Braessae. Very well put.

-a firefly
Contrarian said…
@ Braessae

I see your point, and it is definitely well put. I remember a teacher I had in high school who I couldn't stand but learned a great deal from in retrospect. The relationship between teacher and student is absolutely paramount in those students learning. My question is this: did those students who found the teacher insufferable do well in his/her class? Did they learn the content and have what they needed to be successful when they reached the higher-level content? If so, was it in spite of or because of that teacher?

You write: "This happens everwhere. There are bored bankers, and burned out doctors, and engineers who have secretly figured out that they should have been filmmakers."

Absolutely there are, but I hesitate to compare teachers with other professions because the impact is so direct on the lives and, especially in poorer schools, the life-prospects of students. Burned-out or unmotivated teacher in these types of settings have a dramatically negative impact on students. To borrow from Charlie's often-quoted line: The reason transplanting a teacher from Eckstein to Aki wouldn't be a magic solution is because Eckstein has variations in the quality of it's teachers: a great teacher at Eckstein would be great at Aki. A poor teacher at Eckstein would likely be poorer at Aki because the students at Eckstein, by and large, have greater supports at home.

I agree, "Amazing" is a cliche term, but I don't think we can settle with teaching being like every other profession. Maybe we provide supports, or transfers to our high-performing schools and concentrate more, if not amazing, than "most-highly skilled" to the schools where the ramifications of having anything less prove negative for a majority of the students in that class?
Great discussion.

I'm sure we would all have different opinions of what "amazing" is. And, as has been pointed out, one kid's "amazing" is another kid's boring.

I feel that the district and the teachers' union, in the new contract, are trying to have more good teachers. Support the struggling teachers and reward those who take on more challenges.

I was listening to a news guy recently (I'm thinking MSNBC but not sure). He had a long speech about how it wasn't his teacher's fault. He said he knew when he wasn't listening, wasn't on task and he made a choice about that. He said it wasn't the teacher's job to motivate him (that should generally fall to parents because we have a job as well in this learning stuff).

He said it was ironic because he hated writing in school and yet, he ended up a journalist.
Anonymous said…
In our school, making up a classroom roster is about making a good "fit" for the teacher and class. Still not sure after many years in the system, what that means. Have been told it can mean many things such as: musically/artistically inclined kids get more musically/artistically inclined teachers, balancing out numbers of kids when it comes to behavioral and academic needs so that no one teacher gets overwhelmed, certain social needs as in placing a child without a "father figure" with a male teacher, using sex/ethnicity/race to balance out the classroom ratio. ( in our school, the few "minorities" get spread out into even smaller numbers per classroom.... not sure if this is always good for the indvidual kid(s), but supposed to be better for the classroom as a whole.) Does this help a teacher be "amazing"?

Anonymous said…
and there's the question about what amazing means to people who aren't students or parents. I've seen exceedingly popular teachers, who were heavily requested by students, who had good results with work completion, attendance, and even test scores be harassed by administrators to the point of changing schools. It came down to stylistic differences, those who ran their classrooms exactly the way the admin wanted survived, those who were different didn't, regardless of the relative successes of either method. I've watched it at the schools I've been in, I watched it happen at schools my mom taught at when I was a child.

Survived, I'd say that's probably why we have a union. If principals (who are human and have their own ideas) got to be the sole judges of quality teaching, we might lose a lot of good teachers.
Anonymous said…
Principals ultimately are the sole judges of quality teachers. There is no recourse for non-tenure teachers who get non-renewed. For tenured teachers it's just about the principal putting in their minimal time to check the box that says they did what they were supposed to. For the teacher, it's an overwhelming amount of hoop jumping, meetings, and paperwork that takes away from their time preparing to be in the classroom. I have seen teachers turn things around in the classroom under the guidances of district coaches, union support, and independent evaluators, and still be let go. Additionally, for every job out there, there's a question of wether you have been on review or on an improvement plan. The mere threat of putting someone on improvement is enough to force them out, as even an improvement plan that is survived (rare, as the principal still has final say, regardless of the opinions of everyone else, district and non, who has worked with the teacher) is still a black mark professionally.

In my time in Seattle I have seen one teacher go who really needed to. I have seen it used to force out several teachers who should have stayed, and be used as a threat against many more (toe the line or else).

As far as I have seen, the due process is just to satisfy the union, but ultimately the end result is the same.

Principal said…
Survived's comments "For tenured teachers it's just about the principal putting in their minimal time to check the box that says they did what they were supposed to. For the teacher, it's an overwhelming amount of hoop jumping, meetings, and paperwork that takes away from their time preparing to be in the classroom. " does not match at all my experience as a principal. In my experience - 15 years in the classroom + 13 now as a building administrator - my work in supporting and guiding a teacher who is below standard is far more than "minimal time" checking the right box. It is a like "overwhelming amount of hoop jumping". For me, though it is enormously time consuming, if we get it right, and if the teacher is committed to raising their level of performance, all that investment is absolutely worth it. On the other hand, if the teacher can't or won't work through a plan for improving performance, then it is the right thing to terminate.

Does the whole thing wear people down? Absolutely, on both sides. And it is sometimes true that in that process people - on both sides - throw in the towel and either leave (generally the teacher), or give up to focus on other pressing things (the administrator).

Melissa, Survived is spot on - principals are the sole judges of the quality of teachers in our buildings. It also helps immeasurably when we have a supportive HR department, and a collaborative relationship with a union who is likewise invested in teachers of the highest quality. When we all want "amazing", and work together, we can have it.
Name said…
Thanks for adding your perspective Principal. I hope you continue to comment on this blog.
Braessae said…
Tinkering -- that is how I have always seen it done in elementaries in private school (my only public school elementary kid was in Spectrum so those kids got who they got, as there was only one class -- but that said, she had pretty great teachers all the way through)-- and when done right, the goal is, in fact, the 'amazingness" fits that let teachers do their best work, and let kids shine.

Survived -- I have witnessed exactly what you describe, and like Melissa, I think this is one reason that public schools need unions. Many principals seem to lack either the experience, or the temperament, or maybe both, to really be great leaders -- fostering excellence, enduring quirkiness when it allows great teaching, etc. Schools can become little "storms" pretty easily, it seems, and I think it takes really great leadership to keep everyone focused on educational goals.

In private schools, the "brake" is that parents go nuts when truly wonderful (but maybe administratively difficult) teachers are canned. And they will go to boards, and complain, leave the school, refuse to contribute, etc. So heads of school know they can only go so far. In public schools in big systems, there seems to be much less that parent groups can do to intervene.

In defense of principals, on the other hand, one or two faculty members who truly refuse to be part of a team, badmouth administration and new initiatives, refuse to follow rules they think are silly, and are either openly uncooperative or passive/aggressive, can make it very difficult for a principal to run a school well. Add to that the problems of "top down" administration, where a principal can be fired if they don't become the "enforcer" for a lot of District clap trap, and it is easy to imagine situations where teachers that kids and parents love may not survive.

In the end, I think kids are best served in situations where the District administration has a small, but well defined role to "serve" the schools -- and does the job; and the principals both "lead" the schools (in terms of having a team with a clear mission and goals, and fostering collaboration and cooperation) , and where principals stay in one place long enough so that teachers who work well with specific principals and styles can coalesce around them, in stable, long-term arrangements.

I think we also need a system where a PIP is not a death sentence -- or we need to find ways to work with teachers that don't involve PIPs. It is foolish to expect that no teacher ever needs targeted help. If principals had long term, stable assignments, in situations where they could count on 70 to 80 percent of their staff being people they worked well with and had been with for a long time, it might make it a lot easier for principals to work with the few who need help. I don't know. But what Principal describes below strikes me as a pretty "broken" system.
Anonymous said…
The author of the article says it's not clear why lowering class size in California didn't show the same successes as the Tennesee STAR experiment. Clearly she didn't do much research on that because the information is there. Tennesse's experiment was on a smaller scale, and was well-planned, with attention paid to making sure classrooms were available, the capacity of the building was able to support growth, etc. California did no such thing. They scaled up the program drastically (statewide) and implemented it quickly. They made it a mandate for districts without attention being paid to capacity, and districts were so desperate to meet the mandate they were hiring people they'd granted emgency certification to, just to get a warm body in the classroom. Funny thing though - many of these hastily-formed new classes didn't have classrooms, so they taught in coat closets, equipment rooms, gyms split into 4 different "classrooms" with the use of furniture. Then there's the minor issue of having curricular materials...

But I'm sure it's easier just to say that research is inconclusive and put doubt into the minds of parents, cast the union as the bogeyman and quote the all-knowing Michelle Rhee - savior of public education - rather than putting together some facts.

Tennesee STAR experiment - final summary:

Dorothy Neville said…
To add to CT, the book I read about TN STAR said that another factor in the lack of success for California was that all those new hires everywhere meant that there were suddenly lots of openings for K2 teachers in comfortable suburban schools as well as inner city schools. So experienced inner-city teachers used that to move in droves out of the challenging schools. So the low-income schools ended up with a higher percent of new teachers and many could not find enough teachers to hire to actually create such small class sizes.

In Tennessee, remember, everyone was randomly assigned, everyone.

Another study I stumbled across but alas cannot find again (pointers?), used the results of the California experiment for another analysis. See, all of a sudden they almost doubled the number of K2 teachers hired. If the criteria for selecting teachers had been a good one, we would expect that with such a sudden increase in hiring, the percent of new hires that were not up to snuff would be higher, simply because one would have to be relaxing a good hiring protocol. Well, this study claimed that was not true, that the percent of teachers that didn't work out was exactly the same as before. Conclusion was that it is really hard to know in advance who will become a good teacher. I believe it supported the notion that we simply do not have the science down to predict who will be effective, just like we don't have science backing claims that one can use student test scores to predict who will be effective.
Fed up with know-it-alls said…
tinkering makes a great observation - the "pros" i.e. staff, gets to play at social engineering as they see fit. It's like letting a carpenter design the building. I want an architect for that.
Jan said…
Fed up -- you raise a very interesting point. Who SHOULD be doing the "experimenting?" Clearly not the staff (though I would argue, they are not the carpenters -- those are the teachers, and I would be happy to have them design the "building" as long as we are not talking skyscrapers. Lots of buildings are very adequately and beautifully planned and built by people who know how to build buildings -- but who are not architects.

In my opinion, the social experimenting ought to be done by the learners and the teachers -- working jointly. I think of the District people as the architects -- removed from the every day lives of the people who use the building, and willing to "impose" top-down designs that are unworkable and unhelpful. (Don't tell my archtect friends I wrote this -- it sounds like I hate all architects, and I don't really -- I just want schools that are reponsive to, and work for, the students who go there.

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