Friday, December 28, 2007

Bonus Prize: More Thoughts on Class Size

I'm back, hopped up on Christmas goodies, and ready to comment on class size. Skoolboy, thanks a million for skillfully steering the ship this week.

On Monday, skoolboy pointed out that the evidence on class size effects on learning is mixed. Though it's clear that reduced class size improves learning in experimental settings - see skoolboy's description of the STAR experiment or this paper by Angrist and Lavy - many studies find no effect of class size on achievement (as measured by standardized test scores). Considered alongside data from around the world, where large class sizes yield high achievement, many have concluded that class size doesn't matter much for learning.

I think they are wrong. Here's why: my ability to squeeze learning out of a class is affected by the behavior of the kids sitting next to me. If the kid next to me acts like a knucklehead, I lose out. On the other hand, you can put 35 highly motivated, well-behaved teenagers in a classroom together, and their learning is going to be minimally affected by the large class. For example, selective schools like Bronx Science have very large classes, and so do countries where kids are expected to genuflect to adults.

Edward Lazear, an economist at Stanford Business School, used this idea - that the ideal class size for learning varies by the behavior/attention span of the students - to explain the conflicting findings in class size research. The trouble is that observational studies - i.e. studies using data from the real world - are mixing together the effects of class size on very different kinds of kids. In a very nice theoretical paper, he concludes that class size matters - but that the effect of class size reduction on learning varies by the behavior of the students in it. (That paper, "Educational Production," is available here.)

Two other features of class size reduction are important to note. First, I would expect the effects of class size reduction to be larger on non-cognitive outcomes (like motivation, self-discipline, interpersonal skills, and engagement) than on test scores. And to be honest, I care as much about these outcomes as I do about test scores. Improvement in these social skills can become pathways to future learning. Second, smaller class sizes could help to keep teachers in hard-to-staff schools and in the profession overall.

But as skoolboy notes, class size reduction succeeds or fails on its implementation. Future class size reduction efforts need to learn from California's experience (skoolboy describes this here) where a class size reduction created an immediate need for thousands of new teachers. (You can read about this in Jepsen and Rivkin's report here.) They advised, "A better approach to class size reduction would have been to reduce class sizes in a subset of schools each year, starting with low-performing schools serving high-poverty populations." I agree.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

skoolboy's Top 5 Stories of 2007

I’m supposed to be posting about class size this week, and this is my final post. I thought about crunching some data on class size in New York City, to see if class size differences across schools are socially patterned. I still might do that at some point, but it would have taken more than a day to do it reasonably well—so I passed. I also thought about writing about the cost of class size reduction. The post would have gone something like this: class size reduction is expensive. But if it yields substantial long-term benefits, some of which can be quantified, we can think of it as an investment in human capital, with a positive return on each dollar invested. I might have done some of those “back-of-the-envelope” calculations that economists seem to love. (Why do economists always have a handy supply of envelopes on which to do these calculations? Must be to hold those fat consulting checks. Not that I’m bitter.) But that too would have required a lot of time, and I wasn’t inspired.

So I’m taking the easy way out: the top five most intriguing education stories of 2007: a skoolboy’s-eye view. Hope I’m not upstaging you, eduwonkette! Here goes, in no particular order:

The rise of the education blogs. I started paying attention to education blogs this year. The number has grown exponentially, and the proliferation of blogs has created new opportunities for parents, educators, advocates, and policy analysts (and students too!) across the U.S. and the world to engage with one another about education policy and practice. (The blogs that eduwonkette reads are listed on the right.) Two that I’ve found consistently interesting are Bridging Differences, featuring Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, and (surprise!) eduwonkette. I’ve admired Deborah and Diane for a long time, but didn’t think they’d have much common ground to talk about. They’ve demonstrated that informed people with strong convictions can listen carefully to and engage with one another. It’s been a wonderful model of civil dialogue that I hope will continue for a long time. As for eduwonkette: how lame is it to flog the blog you’re guest-posting on? eduwonkette emerged a scant four months ago, but has taken the education blogosphere by storm. Okay, I’ll stop fawning like a, well, skoolboy. Keep an eye on EduDiva, who in her first month has made several thoughtful posts from the Gateway City.

The rise of the education “suits”. The trend of hiring leaders and managers drawn from outside of the education system has been accelerating. Two such outsiders drew a great deal of attention in New York City this year: Roland Fryer and Jim Liebman. Fryer is a young economist on the Harvard faculty who was appointed as the “Chief Equality Officer” of the NYC Department of Education. He’s the architect of a controversial plan to use cellphones as an incentive for students to get high scores on standardized tests. I don’t know Fryer, and wish him well; but I think he’s in over his head. One indicator of this is that press reports suggest that Fryer and his students, not independent researchers, will be evaluating the success of the initiative. I do know Liebman, and I do not wish him well. A Columbia law professor on leave at the Department of Education as “Chief Accountability Officer,” he’s designed an accountability system that is unintelligible, narrow, and internally contradictory, yet is being used to justify closing schools. Next year’s version may even be worse! Much of the mess he has created could have been avoided if he had been a better listener.

Michelle Rhee’s appointment as the Chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools. A Teach for America alumna who founded the New Teacher Project, Rhee faces the challenge of reforming a system with an astonishing legacy of inefficiency rooted in the organizational structure and culture of the system. Tinkering at the margins will do little to change this shameful picture. But bold strokes such as closing schools and converting central-office staff to at-will status will evoke strong resistance from elected officials and the public alike. It’s an open question whether Rhee will be able to persuade stakeholders to support radical change in how the District does business.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Not a sexy topic for policy wonks, but a critically important one that ought not be overlooked. The failure to invest adequately in rebuilding New Orleans is a national disgrace. Earlier this year, Paul Vallas, former head of the Chicago and Philadelphia school systems, was named to lead the Recovery School District, a district created by the state of Louisiana which houses most of the schools in New Orleans. Vallas is a proponent of what he calls a “diverse provider model” of school management which increases the role of the private sector in public education. Sociologist Carl Bankston, writing in the cyberpages of the Teachers College Record, suggests that, whatever Vallas might do, successful educational reform probably hinges on a sustained commitment to rebuilding the city.

The increasing influence of philanthropies in public education. We are witnessing a consolidation of power and influence that is rooted in new alliances among philanthropies, school leaders, and the business community. School leaders, starved for public resources, have allowed philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation to dictate school reform strategies in exchange for new private monies. Some new initiatives are worthy of support and experimentation; others are downright goofy, and school leaders should know better. But here’s the real problem, in my view: the rich, and the people they hire to administer their foundations, are different from you and me. The elite social circles in which they travel are increasingly removed from the day-to-day concerns of public school parents and students, and the educators who serve them. School districts that hire senior executives on the grounds that they know how to talk to these elites and loosen their pocketbooks are creating a divide that is increasingly difficult to cross.

I’m sure eduwonkette would join me in encouraging you to post your own top stories of 2007. So thanks, eduwonkette, for letting me guest-post for a few days, and we now return you to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Class size and "The Paper Chase"

Although I haven’t seen it in a long while, one of my favorite films is The Paper Chase, which stars Oscar-winning John Houseman as the crusty Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., who terrorizes a class of first-year students at Harvard Law School. Kingsfield thunders, “You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer!” – a line I’ve toyed with paraphrasing for the benefit of my own students (who are not, thankfully, studying to be lawyers). The Paper Chase was fiction, but it accurately portrays how large law school classes are taught using the Socratic Method, in which the instructor engages the class by calling on individual students unexpectedly to respond to questions or to discuss legal cases. The process obliges all students to be well-prepared, and encourages them to compare what they hear other students say in class to what they might have said had they been the ones called upon instead. At the University of Chicago, the 190 entering first-year law students are enrolled in one of two sections of Civil Procedure, for an average class size of 95 students. Using the Socratic Method, an instructor can engage virtually all of the students in a class of 95 or larger.

Of course, elite law schools are highly selective institutions, filled with highly-motivated and talented students. I’m not suggesting that the Socratic Method portrayed so memorably in the Paper Chase (and in Scott Turow’s autobiographical account of his first year at Harvard Law School, One-L) is an instructional panacea. (Indeed, the University of Chicago goes out of its way to dissociate itself from that imagery. Their law school website states, “Perhaps because of its over-the-top portrayal in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, the very mention of the Socratic Method strikes fear in the hearts of those considering attending law school. John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at Chicago does today.” Methinks they doth protest too much!)

No, my point is a simpler one. We cannot understand the effect of class size on student learning without a deep understanding of the instructional strategies and techniques employed by the teacher. Most accounts of the mechanisms by which class size reduction might improve student learning depend on teachers teaching differently in smaller classes than in larger classes. The Socratic Method might work as well in a large class as in a small class; but that won't be true of all instructional approaches.

Spotlight on STAR

Yesterday’s post on class size was a bit like a projective psychological test, in that readers saw what they wanted to see. Pro-class size reduction, anti-class size reduction, it’s all in there.Today I’m spotlighting the Tennessee STAR study, which, along with the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, is one of the two most influential education research studies of the past quarter-century. All studies have their strengths and weaknesses, and no single study constitutes the last word on what is known on a particular topic, especially one as complex as class size. Still, the strengths of the design of the STAR study have made it a star. Funded by the Tennessee General Assembly, the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study was a four-year experiment begun in 1985 in which kindergarten students were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions: a regular class of 22 to 25 students; a regular class of 22 to 25 students with a full-time teacher’s aide; or a smaller class of 13 to 17 students. Students stayed in the same condition through the third grade. Because both students and teachers were randomly assigned to the three conditions, we can be pretty confident that the three groups were equivalent at the start of the study. Therefore, any differences in student outcomes observed among the three groups can be said to be caused by differences in the conditions.

The results were unequivocal. Students in the small class condition scored significantly higher on reading and math tests in the primary grades than students in the other two groups, and the benefits were especially pronounced for African American students and students attending inner-city schools. Follow-up studies show that these effects persist on a range of behavioral and achievement outcomes as students move through secondary school, with students in the small class condition having a lower risk of dropping out of high school, and a higher likelihood of taking college entrance exams. STAR serves as a kind of “proof of concept”: the study demonstrates persuasively that placing students in small classes in the early elementary grades can have lasting beneficial effects on a range of student outcomes.

The challenge is in applying what we’ve learned from STAR to other settings, which is usually what we are interested in doing. STAR is not a license to say that any old class size reduction initiative will have the same effects. The more closely a particular policy initiative resembles STAR, the more likely we are to observe similar findings. If, for example, you believe that teaching and learning in high school are different than teaching and learning in the early elementary grades, you might be reluctant to make any inferences from STAR about what would happen if we reduced class size in high schools, since STAR didn’t do that. And, since STAR involved a contrast between a class of 22 to 25 and a class of 13 to 17, you might not want to speculate about the consequences of reducing class size from 28 to 21, since that wasn’t actually observed in the STAR study. (In fact, there’s evidence from other studies that it’s not so much that small classes are good as it is that large classes are bad.)

But perhaps even more important is how class size reduction is achieved—the mix of what policy wonks refer to as policy instruments that define how a policy is enacted. California tells a cautionary tale. On the heels of the STAR study, California embarked on an ambitious statewide class size reduction initiative. In 1996, school districts received an additional $650 for each student in a K-3 class of 20 or smaller; the figure rose to $800 per student the following year. This was a powerful incentive that few districts could resist. Studies of the initiative show that California districts scrambled to reduce class sizes by hiring teachers with intern or emergency credentials, and many of these teachers wound up teaching in large urban schools serving poor, minority students who were English language learners. (In contrast, all of the teachers in STAR were fully certified.) Moreover, districts had to cannibalize space for small classes that otherwise would have been used for other purposes, including special education, arts and music, and athletics. Perhaps as a consequence of how class size reduction was implemented in California, researchers were unable to conclude that it had positive effects on student achievement.

I’m persuaded by the STAR study that class size reduction can lead to better student outcomes. The key questions for me are: (a) under what conditions might class size reduction work? and (b) what mix of policy instruments can create those conditions? These questions focus attention on class size reduction in particular contexts, which, in the end, is what most of us care about.

Monday, December 24, 2007

skoolboy on Class Size

skoolboy here. My thanks to Eduwonkette for ceding the bully cyberpulpit for a few days while she takes a much-earned break from blogging. I’ve never done this before, and already I’m exhausted. I know that I have a large pair of high heels to fill (ouch! I think I strained a metaphor!), but I’ll do my best not to embarrass the Caped Crusader. Since I’m a newbie, I thought I’d write about a nice, safe, noncontroversial topic – class size. I know that there are some readers of Eduwonkette who are quite passionate about class size, and may not be delighted with all that I have to say. Feel free to disagree, and, if you wish, to e-mail me personally at skoolboy2 at gmail dot com. But please, please don’t blame Eduwonkette for anything I say. She’s not responsible for my opinions, nor I for hers. And now: Watch, as skoolboy sticks his head in the lion’s mouth! Will he emerge unharmed?

As an undergraduate, I had classes that ranged from 600 students to 3 students. Although the class of 600 was wonderful—a much beloved and engaging lecturer on microeconomics—and the class of 3 was great too—a freshman seminar reading intellectual biographies of Einstein, Darwin, Freud and others—on balance, I liked smaller classes. (They could be too small, because it’s tough to hide in a class of 3 if you haven’t done the reading.)

As a college teacher, I’ve taught classes ranging from 60 students to about 8 students. Everything else being equal, I prefer teaching smaller classes. I feel like I get to know the students better in smaller classes, and there are fewer papers and exams to grade. I’m not alone. Given a choice between a larger class and a smaller class, students, teachers and parents in the U.S. almost always prefer smaller classes. Followers of school reform in New York City know that, despite the NYC Department of Education’s best efforts to disguise it, more parents surveyed chose smaller class size over nine other response options as the one improvement they would most like their school to make.

So what’s the problem? First, reducing class size is perceived as expensive. Second, class size reduction policies are often championed on the grounds that they will improve student achievement, and the evidence on this is not as secure as we’d like. I’ll have more to say about these points over the next few days. But for now, I’d like to suggest that proponents of class size reduction frame their arguments on moral grounds, rather than on what the research evidence has to say. Let’s champion smaller classes because it’s the right thing to do for teachers (e.g., providing adequate working conditions for valued public servants), and for children (e.g., distributing opportunities to learn more equitably across students), not because reducing class size will increase standardized test scores by x%.

Merry Christmas to Eduwonkette’s readers. I’m going to post tomorrow morning, and then observe the holiday in my customary way – a movie and Chinese food. For those of you celebrating Christmas in other ways, the posts will still be here on Wednesday, and I wish you a satisfying and peaceful holiday.