Friday, May 25, 2012
The class size kerfuffle
I like following politics in general, but seeing the "big stories" of the past few days has reminded me why I'm glad I'm not covering politics as a reporter full time. Yesterday's big campaign story was that Mitt Romney said that class size was not key to student success. The White House issued a statement asking what planet he lived on, as if this were a cut and dried issue. The problem for both sides is that it's an incredibly nuanced issue. In our political debates, we tend to like story lines that focus on very few variables. From the left, perhaps: raise taxes and the debt will disappear! From the right: cutting defense spending makes America less safe! But with education and many other issues, there are so many more variables. This is definitely true with class size. Some studies (most notably a long, longitudinal one from Tennessee) found that reduced class sizes correspond with higher student achievement. On the other hand, Mitt Romney could point to other studies finding that class size was not strongly correlated with student success. Both can be right. Studies can find all kinds of things when there's many variables! On this blog, we've looked at a study out of Kenya finding that cutting class size in half only helped if the students were then grouped by ability in the smaller classes. Teachers often prefer working in smaller groups, and find it better for discipline purposes, but what if you change the whole class structure? Some of the schools I visited in California for this blended learning project could have as many as 48 kids in a class, but they were all getting more instructional time, because they rotated through direct teacher instruction, small group projects, and adaptive learning programs on computers. KIPP Empower LA, an elementary school that's doing blended learning, has 28-30 kids per kindergarten class, and saw these children's test scores improve more over the year than any other KIPP school (which tend to be high-performing charters already). The kids got more small group time with the teacher because of the class set-up -- but that didn't require small classes. Just think of all the variables involved. Small classes might be good, but if teacher quality were more important, then small classes might not help matters -- because it would force you to dip deeper into the applicant pool than you might want. But all these matters are not easily discussed in sound bites -- so we tend not to get thoughtful discussions in campaigns.