Friday, April 04, 2008

More on Smaller Class Sizes

Given that class size reduction is a key (and costly) component of many school reform efforts, I'm happy to see that it's being studied extensively. In the past few weeks, we've looked at a study from Kenya that showed that class size reduction is most effective when accompanied by ability grouping, and a rehash of the Tennessee STAR study that found that smaller classes benefit higher-achieving students more than lower-achieving students.

Now, a new study looking at schools in four countries (US, UK, Hong Kong and Switzerland) asks another question. If we assume that small classes are better for kids (which, I want to stress again, has not been proved conclusively -- it is very hard to isolate variables), why would we suppose that would be? Is it because teachers teach differently when they have smaller classes? Or is it because students behave differently in small classes?

According to research presented at the American Education Research Association conference in late March (and written up in this article in USA Today), it's not the former. In small classes, many teachers continue to teach as though they still have a large class. They make presentations that don't necessarily involve the students; they don't demonstrate what the students themselves will then do. But the students themselves spend more time on task. It seems that teachers are better able to maintain control in smaller classes, and so more time is spent on learning, and the students are able to spend more time engaged with the teacher than they are in larger classes.

It's a tricky issue. Perhaps if teachers were trained to better leverage their smaller classes, then small classes would result in more benefits. But it's hard to know. The article notes that in two of the four countries studied, the results were inconclusive. Indeed, some countries with the best academic results have the largest classes! This article (and chart, about halfway down) shows that while we quibble over whether classes have 20 or 25 pupils, in South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan (high scorers all), class size averages over 30 students.

My own opinion? From what I've seen of various studies, I'm currently thinking that teacher quality and (much harder to control) student quality matter most. By "student quality" I mean kids coming to school ready to learn, well-fed, well-rested and safe, and firmly ensconced in a culture that values education. After that, ability grouping is probably the most important factor. After that, class size. So yes, we can spend billions to make classes smaller. But paying brilliant teachers $150,000 a year and removing any teacher who can't keep up is probably a better idea, even if it means class sizes of 30 or more.


Anonymous said...

If you paid school teachers $150,000 a year you'd probably see a mass exodus of college professors, as they aren't paid nearly that much. A professor in engineering (one of the top-paid branches of academia) might get $100,000 after 25 years of teaching and promotion.

Spedvet said...

I don't think class size is the answer in itself either.

Any teacher, good, mediocre or bad, is going to do better with a smaller class size simply because of having fewer pupils and being able to spend more time with them. Just like a teacher, good mediocre or bad, with a class full of achievers is going to have an easier time than with a class full of ajudicated youths.

The question is: What is the factor or variable that influences student achievement/learning the MOST.

I think that unquestioningly, it is the teaching methodolody used, and the proficiency of the teaching in implementing that methodology.

I've never seen actual data to support my total personal hypothesis, but I'd wager a fair amount of money that a highly skilled teacher using Direct Instruction or Precision Teaching with a class of 35 would outperform by leaps and bounds another teacher using some type of self-honed teaching methodology to a class of 15.

This is of course assuming that the students parents aren't tutoring their kids at home, or paying for outside tutoring. (We can't count that, because then the parents are due some of the credit for what the kid is learning, and we are trying to compare teaching to teaching, not teaching vs. teaching with help from parents. Parental help is a variable for which their is really no way to measure or gauge the value of and it is mixing apples and oranges.)

Anonymous said...

Previous poster wrote:

Parental help is a variable for which their is really no way to measure or gauge the value of and it is mixing apples and oranges.)


Indirectly, about as strong an endorsement of homeschooling as I've yet seen here! I know that wasn't the seminal message but it's what I'll extrapolate here:

I will say this with regard to parental involvement. My daughter, EG/PG 2e has been in gifted programs almost her entire life. There was that one year I pulled her out to homeschool her.

Therefore, she has never received tutoring, she is not an academically struggling student, as a 2e child, as you all know, the difficulites are not cognitive. Heck, when it comes to math, she is WAY ahead of me!

But I'm struck by how anything DD has ever done of any significance or magnitude has been done at home. As parents, we have never to date hired a tutor because she gets it quickly. What did we do?

Let's start with research. Although gifted programs require tons of research projects and papers, my husband and I found that the schools, even the GT Centers, were not teaching my daughter how to do research! In fact, the classes hardly ever visited the school libary and when they did, it was to use the computers.

My husband taught my daughter how to do library research. We taught her not to rely solely on the internet but to peruse the library shelves, look up books, find primary sources, and demonstrated how to use the library catalogue system (lucky for our kids. Pre-internet, I remember having to figure out that unwieldly library card system as a youngster. My non-English immigrant parents (I was also born overseas) were hopelessly of no help in this area).

As parents, we may not have tutored our daughter although even the smartest kid is going to run into a wall on occasion. There were some assignments that were so unwieldy, my husband with his two Ivy League degrees, couldn't figure out what was being asked. So we sat down with her and tried to deciper, not the academic material, but the instructions! And then there are the research projects where my perfectionist daughter had trouble zeroing in on a thesis, how to extract the main points. This is such an integral part of learning and critical thinking, yet the schools don't seem to spend time on this.

In the end, this isn't an argument for heavy parental involvement but for homeschooling. We don't like to micromanage homework because of fears it'll generate learned helplessness. I'd rather see a sloppy project a child tackled completely by herself than a slick one, such as we always saw at school, that the child could only finish with strong input from mom and dad.

I know parental involvement is that X variable you can't measure when you are comparing teachers to teachers. And just for the record, despite our education, we are not wealthy, far from it, struggling actually so that outside tutoring and coaching is completely out of our budget.

What all this has always told me is this: if any assignment of value is being done at home, if we are the ones teaching her how to do research, how to write a well crafted elegant essay (to borrow from CTY),if I've taught her that a good writer is observant, notices everything, if we fostered a love of learning and books, if we work with her to hone in on the salient points, just why did we (indeed again we are) sending her to school? Why not just homeschool?

Parental involvement should be an adjunct. I always believed in "homeschooling on the side," while my daughter attends school. It's when homework takes over every minute, when home life is treated merely as an extension to the school day, if our weekends are stolen from us, then why are we sending her to school at all? To take tests?

Sorry I veered off the subject of smaller class size. But the parental invovlement equation got my juices (and wrath) flowing!