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.


Anonymous said...

If class sizes are not getting any smaller, high-quality paraprofessionals are so important. Having that extra person who is able to monitor kids who are working independently while the teacher works with small groups (or help students who are working on alternative assignments, etc.) makes a huge difference. The teacher can plan and direct the instruction, but having an extra capable adult body in the classroom allows the main instructor to dedicate all of his/her attention to the small group.

So often the independent work students get while the teacher is working with small (usually ability-level) groups is far too easy, because it has to be something the students can do without interrupting for assistance. With an aide available to answer questions and keep everyone on task, the teacher can really devote his/her attention to the small group instruction. Technology helps in this regard, as well, as there are so many good self-adjusting educational websites and programs available these days, but having an extra adult in the classroom is still helpful for keeping everyone on track.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I hear you! But my personal experience with teachers' aides in my childrens' classrooms has been dismal. Lovely, lovely, lovely people. But not remotely analytically-oriented. For example, I remember our favorite, sweetest aide, had a very, very difficult time sorting which fraction was smallest: 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4. In front of the class, she got it wrong. The standards for aides must be fairly non-existent, or based on sweet personalities rather than teaching ability.

So adjusting class size larger, based on having an aide, would worry me! They can be great babysitters and discipline-handlers, but if we rely on them for instruction, then we need to increase our standards.

lgm said...

When our district switched from small group to whole class instruction in elementary, many children felt disconnected. Our personal experience was that weeks would go by without anyone speaking to our unclassified child or our child having an opportunity to contribute to discussion. The included children all had personal 1:1 aides, and the classroom teachers (one regular and one sped teacher) all spoke only to those children needing help - usually a disrupter or an emotionally disturbed child. It's easy to be invisible and ignored in a large included class.

As far as class size - it doesn't matter. The existing buildings can only hold so many people in each classroom. Adding the additional teacher and the aides has just overwhelmed the hvac system and created a situation where a fire evacuation is going to cause casualties. My kids have been in small classes with no special ed. children and large classes with and without. In all cases, no learning happens when a child decides he is going to disrupt and that child cannot be removed. The high school has solved this with security guards, but the elementaries have not. Class size doesn't matter; the number of disruptors does.

If we want to save money, we could stop making the top 25% of students repeat so much in the elementary.

nicoleandmaggie said...

The important thing about the Tennessee STAR experiment is not that it's longitudinal, but that it was a randomized controlled experiment. An imperfect randomized controlled experiment (some shenanigans may have gone on with the treatment/control groups requiring some nasty econometrics for robustness checks), but it's still pretty widely believed to be valid.

There are general equilibrium questions-- if you add money to reduce class-size, that takes money away from other things. Schools may be already optimizing with the resources they have. However, if external money comes in, smaller class sizes in K-3 may be a good place to put that money based on high quality research. It may not be the best use of money, but it's also not a waste of money.

Andi-Roo TheWorldForRealz said...

When I was a child, finishing your classwork ahead of the rest of the class resulted in either boredom or extra busy work. I don't think much has changed since then, as my daughter was one of only 6 in the entire 1st grade who could read, & their homework did not indicate to me that any "advanced" (or whatever special, non-offensive key word we're using now) work was assigned. I don't care about class size. I care that my child is in a decent learning environment, which unfortunately does not seem to be the case. And I don't see any fix for this, short of removing her from the class & homeschooling, which isn't an option due to circumstances beyond my control. There are some nice Montessori schools nearby, but alas, they are reserved for the financially privileged. So for now, she is stuck being bored, regardless of her class size.