Friday, January 4, 2008

eduwonkette's roadtrip....

I'm headed over to on Sunday, January 6th. eduwonkette will still have the same content, superhero graphic, and "blogging moxie" (hat tip - Sherman Dorn) - it's just less pink.

Clarifications/disclaimers: I will not be an employee of Ed Week - they'll just be hosting the site. They're not responsible for my views, nor I for theirs.

The archives will be here:

The new URL is:

Starting on Sunday, will redirect you to the new site. See you over there, and enjoy the weekend, everyone!

Cool teachers you should know: Brandy Clark, Brooklyn's MS 313

Brandy Clark, a 4th year teacher, grew up in both Oklahoma and southern California. For two years, she taught speech, drama, and debate in Oklahoma City at Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School. She then moved to New York, which her nominator, John Thompson, says “fits her personality” (this is the ultimate compliment in my book). This is her second year teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math and science special education at M.S. 313 in Brooklyn.

Check out her favorite lesson from a unit on simple machines. Ms. Clark explained, “As a class we use our knowledge of potential and kinetic energy to build miniature catapults. We recycle used milk cartons, sporks, and rubber bands to hurl mini-marshmallows at targets and into each others mouths. The students enjoy competing to see who can pitch a marshmallow the farthest.”

A believer in the idea that the best way for her class to learn about the world is to see it for themselves, Ms. Clark takes her students on a variety of trips. She wrote, “This year we have done everything from visiting the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, to watching the St. Luke’s chamber orchestra perform, to touring the neighborhood gathering rocks for our unit on the earth and the rock cycle.”

Her advice to new teachers? “Every lesson is an opportunity to allow your students to work with their hands to get messy. New teachers should understand that it’s okay not to be perfect. Making mistakes and acknowledging them allows students to see a human side to their teachers and allows the students to feel free to make their own mistakes as they learn.”

Ms. Clark is also active in supporting student activities outside of the classroom – in Oklahoma, she was the technical director of a musical theater production and also directed one theater production. In the picture above (she’s on the left), she agreed to go on stage with her students as a mock KISS band - Ms. Clark explained, "There was a fog machine and strobe lights as we lip synced with cardboard instruments." That’s commitment.

Keep up the good work, Ms. Clark!

You can nominate a cool teacher you should know by emailing me at eduwonkette (at) gmail (dot) com.

School Size and Class Size in NYC

Do smaller schools in NYC have smaller classes? I took at look at the numbers for 9th grade English general education classes. Here's what I found:

  • Smaller schools, on average, have smaller classes. Students attending small schools in NYC (those with fewer than 500 students) attend schools with an average class size of 23.8. For schools with 500-2000 students, the average is 25.6; and for schools with more than 2000 students, the average is 28.0.

  • These averages conceal the fact that a much higher proportion of small schools have very small classes. 24% of small schools have average classes of 20 or fewer, while 7% of medium sized schools and 2% of large schools do.

  • Only 5% of small schools have average class sizes of 30 or more, while 10% of medium sized schools do and 27% of large schools do.

To anecdotally make points 2 and 3 above, International High School in the Bronx has an average class size of 12.2, while Francis Lewis High School in Queens has an average class size of 32.8. What a difference 20 kids makes.

What's also interesting is that there are small schools that have very large class sizes - for example, the two largest 9th grade class sizes are at relatively new small schools (East Bronx Academy for the Future, 34; Brooklyn Generation School, 38.5). Why? One hypothesis is that some small schools have been able to find ways to turn away (or to not be sent) over the counter students, while others have not. Perhaps some schools have been successful in raising additional funds to reduce class size. Other ideas are welcome here.

The last two days have only provided a cursory look at these data, and there's a lot more that could be done. If you have suggestions, please let me know.

Update: At Edwize, Leo Casey weighs in on the school size/class size relationship.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cool People You Should Know: Meredith Phillips

Meredith Phillips teaches at UCLA's School of Public Affairs. You probably know her name from the incredibly useful edited book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, that she co-edited with Sandy Jencks.

From her website, here's what she's up to these days:

Phillips is currently working on three major research projects. With funding from the Mellon foundation, she is conducting a five-year longitudinal study of how students' experiences at an ethnically diverse, highly-selective university influence their major choices, course-taking patterns, and academic progress.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, she is following a diverse sample of fifth-graders over the transition to middle school in order to examine the "oppositional culture" hypothesis.

And with funding from the Russell Sage Foundation, she is using the Schools and Staffing Survey to describe how school quality changed over the 1990s and how school quality overlaps with neighborhood quality.

Poor kids have it easy

The cat's out of the bag, folks. Poor kids have the life and coast right into selective schools, according to a new book, reported on here in the Wall Street Journal:
Take this passage from Michele Hernández's "Acing the College Application," where she assesses the chances of a high-school student getting into a college of his choice. "Best case: Neither of your parents attended college at all, your father is a factory worker, and your mom is on disability. . . . Worst case: Your father went to Yale as an undergraduate and then Harvard Business School and is now an investment banker and your mom went to Brown, holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and works as a research chemist."

We all understand that being a rich white kid puts one at a disadvantage in the college-admissions process. But it is worth pausing to savor the irony of an institution that charges as much as $45,000 a year asking its applicants to demonstrate their proletarian credentials.

Is she for real? Kids from the top socioeconomic quartile are 25 times more likely to attend a selective college than those in the bottom quartile (see Century Foundation study here). Don't worry, though - for $26,000 - 40,000, Michele Hernandez will help you cope with the burden of being rich .

Kid Nation: An Overview of the K-3 Class Size Data

Many thanks to skoolboy and Leonie Haimson for their posts on class size. Let's keep the class size ball rolling by taking a preliminary look at the NYC class size data - these data are available here. We heard a lot this week about the STAR experiment; in short, kids in small K-3 classes outperformed those in larger ones. What do NYC class sizes look like for K-3 kids?
  • In grades K-3, only a fraction of NYC kids have the benefit of small classes (those with 17 or fewer). 13% of kindergarteners, 10% of 1st graders, 11% of 2nd graders, and 12% of 3rd graders are in small classes.
  • 18% of kindergarten kids are in classes of 25 or more. The largest kindergarten class in the city is 31 students (PS 332 -Charles Houston in Brooklyn).
  • 20% of 1st graders and 23% of 2nd graders are in classes of 25 or more.
  • 22% of 3rd graders are in classes of 25 or more. The largest third grade class is 33 students (PS 189 - Lincoln Terrace in Brooklyn) .

Honestly, I don't know how anyone could put 31 five year olds in one room and expect anything but madness to ensue. Charming and adorable as they are, I would be running in the other direction. Or calling a network to suggest a new reality show.

I know this isn't news to anyone familiar with NYC schools - but wow. Also, check out edwize's post on NYC class size for more details. I'll take a closer look at other grades tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

skoolboy's Rejoinder

Leonie Haimson does exactly what one would expect a class size advocate to do – make a forceful argument in favor of the benefits of smaller classes, emphasizing the studies that support her position, and minimizing those that do not. I’m not interested in a point-by-point sparring match with her; suffice it to say that I think that her broad claims for the benefits of class size reduction are not well-supported by the relevant social science evidence.

Part of what is at issue is what kinds of evidence are persuasive. There are two main considerations: (a) a study’s internal validity, and (b) a study’s external validity.

Internal validity matters. Internal validity refers to the credibility of cause-and-effect claims within a given study. The STAR study was a randomized experiment, and the design gives us a lot of confidence that the more favorable outcomes observed in the small class treatment was due to being in a class of 13 to 17 students, rather than a class of 22 to 25 students. Lots of other studies are not experiments. Some of them show more positive outcomes in small classes and others do not; but the challenge is justifying the claim that the association between class size and student outcomes is caused by being in a smaller class, rather than by other forces. In some studies, these alternative forces are known as selection bias—the nonrandom sorting of students into smaller and larger classes on the basis of student characteristics that might be associated with student outcomes. For example, we would not want to conclude that the reason that academic performance is higher in small honors classes than larger regular classes is because of class size. eduwonkette constantly reminds us of the dangers of selection bias. In others, such as the AIR/RAND study of California, other policy and assessment changes were occurring at the same time as class size reduction, and the researchers were unable to rule out the possibility that changes in student performance during the class size reduction period were due to these other changes. Like many social scientists, I give more weight to studies that have high internal validity. Economist Alan Krueger agrees: “[class size] studies are of varying quality and often examine very different outcomes for different populations. Should the amalgamation of such studies be trusted? Personally, I think one learns more about the effect of class size from understanding the specifications, data, methods and sensitivity of results in the few best studies than from summarising the entire literature.”

External validity matters. External validity refers to the extent to which claims that are derived from a particular study apply more broadly to other settings. Studies are conducted in a particular time and place, with a particular target population. I’ve suggested that a study of class size reduction in kindergarten and first grade might not tell us much about class size reduction in high school, because the settings are so different. I’ve also suggested that how class size reduction is implemented matters. Are the teachers qualified? Is there adequate space? The issue of external validity is also at the heart of economist Edward Lazear’s model that eduwonkette summarized last week: reducing class size in classes of well-behaved students may not tell us much about reducing class size in classes of poorly-behaved students, and vice versa. Economist Steve Barnett makes this point in discussing the three best-known early childhood education studies: Perry Preschool, Abecedarian, and Chicago Child-Parent Center. “No one should expect any public program to produce the same results as any one of the studies,” he writes. “To borrow a phrase from the US Environmental Protection Agency, for any particular public [early childhood education] program ‘your mileage may vary’. In general, variations in the population served, program design, and the neighborhood and broader social context can be expected to affect costs and benefits.” The same is surely true for class size reduction as well.

I thought that my posts last week were a balanced but positive endorsement for class size reduction, based on a reasonable reading of the research evidence. Leonie Haimson disagrees. My main crime seems to be that I don’t agree with what “actually” happened in STAR, in California, etc., which, miraculously, always favors smaller classes. Always! But don’t take my word for the “conventional wisdom” on class size reduction. Here are some quotes from “Class Size: Counting Students Can Count," a publication of the American Educational Research Association researched by the lead authors of the STAR study, Jeremy Finn and Charles Achilles, and reviewed by David Berliner, Eric Hanushek, and Larry Hedges. Read these quotes and judge for yourself if I’m distorting what leading researchers think about class size.

“The most dramatic impact seems to be achieved by reaching students early. Ideally, students should experience small classes of 13 to 17 students when entering school, in either kindergarten or first grade. While there is strong evidence of academic improvement during the first two years spent in a small class, there is more ambiguity about the value of additional years. It is not certain that there are added gains during second- and third-grade small classes.”

“There is no experimental research suggesting that any benefits are realized by subtracting only a few children from a larger class — for example, transitioning from 28 to 25 students. Even a class of 20 students may be too large.”

“In California, a lightning-quick ramp-up of statewide class-size reduction policy created many complications. Many new classrooms had to be found or built, and thousands of new teachers were hired within several months of the 1996 launch. Teaching quality suffered. While test scores have gone up in California since the small-class initiative started, researchers have been unable to determine how much, if any, of the improvement resulted from class-size reductions, as opposed to several other initiatives that were launched at around the same time.”

“[Small classes] are not a cure-all for low academic achievement, and they may not always be the best use of scarce resources. In weighing the pros and cons of a class-size reduction plan, policymakers will want to measure the costs of class-size reduction against other possible uses of the same funds.”

Let me close with a couple of suggestions to proponents of smaller classes. First, the hearts and minds of policymakers will not be won over by hitting them over the head with an increasingly thick sheaf of studies touting the effects of class size reduction. This is not a topic on which research is the most important determinant of policy outcomes. (In fact, there are very few policy issues that hinge most directly on what the research has to say.) One need only look at the literature on high-quality preschool programs to see that research hasn’t carried the day. The cost-benefit analyses of the Perry Preschool Project conducted by economist Clive Belfield and his colleagues have shown substantial benefits to the general public through age 40, to the tune of almost $13 for every $1 invested, across categories such as tax contributions, criminal activity, and welfare receipt. (There are benefits to individual participants as well.) But we’re still awaiting adequate funding for high-quality early childhood education programs for all children who can benefit from them. Why should it be different for class size reduction?

Second, I think a more successful strategy would be to focus on the development of a small, well-designed class size reduction initiative that can generate some “small wins” that can then be used to leverage expansion. Look, I have no love for the weasels that populate the senior management of the NYC Department of Education. (They’re not all weasels, of course, but let’s just say that the NYC Department of Health would shut down Tweed Courthouse faster than a KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village.) But successful policy reform involves finding ways to work with managers and policymakers to craft actual class size reduction initiatives. All of the research in the world is not an actual class size reduction initiative. That’s what’s going to make a difference, and that’s where I’d direct my energies if I were a class size advocate.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Leonie Haimson Responds to Skoolboy on Class Size

I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday. Below, Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of NYC's Class Size Matters, responds to skoolboy's posts on class size:

Eduwonkette offered me the opportunity to respond to Skoolboy’s postings on class size –which I originally rejected since I wanted to at least try to spend a few days over the holidays in relative peace with my family, and not have to argue about this topic.

But as you can see, I changed my mind, since it proved difficult for me to resist responding to his observations on a subject so close to my heart.

1. Let’s start with his account of the STAR studies on Tennessee – which have been rightfully described as one of the best – and one of the few convincing large-scale experiments in the history of education research. The STAR studies demonstrated conclusively that class size does make a difference – though even earlier, many analyses showed a convincing correlation between smaller classes and better academic outcomes. Skoolboy writes:

“… 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.”

Actually, Alan Krueger of Princeton analyzed the results for the control group in STAR of students who were in classes from 22-25, and found that within this range, the smaller the class, the better the outcomes as well. Indeed, class size researchers believe that the benefits from class size reduction are roughly linear, and no threshold needs to be crossed in terms of class size to improve learning opportunities for students.

2. Now let’s consider Skoolboy’s comments on California, and clarify what the research actually showed about the results of that state’s efforts to reduce class size, which began in 1996-7:

“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.”

Actually, every controlled study of the California class size reduction program – and there have been at least eight so far- showed significant gains from smaller classes. (For some of these citations, see this CSM fact sheet).

One analysis, by the Public Policy Institute of California, showed that in the five largest school districts other than Los Angeles, namely San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno, class size reduction raised the proportion of third graders who exceeded the national median by l0.5 % in math, and 8.4 % in reading, after controlling for all other factors. And though this report didn’t find significant gains in LA, others that looked at student level data – generally considered more reliable -- that did find positive results.

Overall, the research on CA is more ambiguous than the STAR studies, if only because the state undertook several major reforms at about the same time, including adopting a new math curriculum, eliminating bilingual education, and implementing new accountability measures that make it difficult to isolate the effects of class size.

To further complicate the question, the state introduced a new test which made it impossible to compare scores before and after classes were reduced. Most schools also lowered class size so quickly it was difficult to find a control group to which results might be compared. Yet even the most equivocal study — that from the RAND/AIR consortium — showed a significant gains in test scores for the one control group they could identify: third graders who remained in larger classes as compared to those in smaller classes, though many of the latter group had been in a small class for only one year or less.

And although the researchers said these gains were “small”, the effect size they found was almost exactly as would be expected from the STAR studies, which showed negligible gains from third graders who spent only one year in small classes, with the largest gains, as might be expected, for students who were in smaller classes in Kindergarten and remained in a small class for several years thereafter.

In addition, the RAND/AIR Consortium made several other methodological errors. For example, in order to eliminate the “unobservable” differences between schools that reduced class size and those that didn’t, the researchers subtracted the difference between fifth grade student test scores at both sets of schools, assuming that fifth graders would have been unaffected by the program. Yet as Fatih Unlu demonstrated in his paper on CSR in California, 18% of the fifth graders in those schools with smaller classes in the third grade had actually been in smaller classes themselves two years before.

As Unlu points out, if the CSR program had positive effects, adjusting the test score differences of the third grade CSR participants and non-participants by subtracting the test scores of these higher-achieving 5th graders unfairly lessened the estimated effect of class size reduction.

In his study of the impact of smaller classes in California, Unlu avoided some of the limitations encountered by other researchers who were stymied by the fact that the state tests were new. He instead analyzed pre-existing NAEP scores for California 4th graders in 1996 and compared them to the results in 2000, since the earlier group had no experience of smaller classes, while the latter group had experienced smaller classes for several years before entering the fourth grade.

The NAEPs are also considered more reliable than state standardized tests, since no high stakes are attached. By using two different statistical methods, Unlu finds very substantial gains from smaller classes -- .30 of a standard deviation.

Though Skoolboy and others emphasize that the number of uncertified teachers rose as a result of CSR, none of the studies – including the analysis done by the RAND/AIR group, could find any evidence that these teachers were any less effective. In fact, more recently, Robert Gordon et al. write that “When the Los Angeles Unified School District needed to triple its hiring of elementary teachers following the state’s class-size reduction initiative in 1997, the district was able to do so without experiencing a reduction in mean teacher effectiveness, even though a disproportionate share of the new recruits were not certified.”

And while many anecdotal reports to this day claim that certified and experienced teachers fled high needs schools to go teach elsewhere when class size was reduced, there is no evidence for this; in fact follow-up studies from California showed that after rising temporarily, teacher migration rates fell dramatically in all types of schools to much lower levels than before class sizes were reduced, and most sharply in those schools with large numbers of poor students. In fact, after CSR, migration rates began to converge in all these schools, for the first time.

See this chart from Lawrence P. Gallagher, “Class Size Reduction and Teacher Migration: 1995–2000,” in: Technical Appendix of the Capstone Report, Part C, 2002, p. 47 (click to enlarge):

This finding is not altogether surprising, given that for the first time, teachers in schools with large number of poor students had a real chance to succeed, their perceived need to flee elsewhere was substantially alleviated. This would likely occur in NYC schools as well if class sizes were reduced here.

Indeed, several studies have shown consistently lower levels of teacher attrition after class sizes were reduced, in CA, NY state, and elsewhere. Here is a synergistic effect that would be expected to enhance teacher quality over and above the direct impact of a smaller class itself, as lower rates of attrition would increase the overall experience level and effectiveness of the teaching force over time.

3. Skoolboy points out that at higher levels of education, such as law schools, large lecture courses are popular with professors who engage in the Socratic method –as in the movie “The Paper Chase” – one of his favorites. He writes:

“Using the Socratic Method, an instructor can engage virtually all of the students in a class of 95 or larger.”

But there are two major problems with this example. One obvious is that the extremely high needs students that populate our NYC public schools are very different from the college graduates who attend our elite law schools, as NYC Educator pointed out in a comment to the blog. The other problem is that even in college and graduate school, class size still matters, as shown by a surprising wealth of research.

It is simply untrue that all the students in a college or law school class of 95 or larger will be engaged, or have their academic needs satisfied, to be able to receive adequate feedback on their written work or verbal contributions. It is even doubtful that real Socratic dialogue can take place in classes this large.

It is no wonder that Socrates himself engaged in debate and discussion with smaller groups of followers – and that as many former law students have described it, their lecture classes turned out to be more a way for professors to terrorize and humiliate them rather than engage with them in a truly intellectually productive manner. In fact, research indicates that large lectures in college contribute to high rates of student attrition, and that many college students find small classes to be far superior opportunities for academic growth and engagement.

See, for example, this paper by Joe Cuseo, “The Empirical Case Against Large Class size: Adverse Effects on the Teaching, Learning and Retention of First Year Students”, with a wealth of citations. Here is an excerpt:

Research on the lecture method strongly suggests that student attention and concentration tend to drop off dramatically after 10-20 minutes of continuous instructor discourse (Penner, 1984; Verner and Dickinson, 1067.) This attention “drift” occurs even among highly motivated postgraduate students (Stuart and Rutheford, 1978) and learning-oriented (versus grade-oriented) undergraduate students (Milton, Pollio, Eisen, 1986.) Among undergraduates in general, it has been found that about half of the time during lectures, they are thinking about things unrelated to the lecture content, with up to 15 percent of their class time spent fantasizing (Milton, Polio & Eison, 1986.)

In fact, one of the few good effects of the US News rankings is that colleges and universities are now rated in part on what percentage of their classes are 20 students or less – which has created an impetus to reduce class size even at such highly regarded but (some would say) overrated universities as Harvard and MIT.

4. I also have to respond to eduwonkette who says that there’s no problem with stuffing students into large classes at a high school like Bronx Science. Though it may be true these kids don’t face the same likelihood of failing their classes or dropping out of school as low-performing students at other high schools, many students at selective schools feel thwarted by not getting the feedback they need, on their writing, their ideas, or even being able to ask questions in class.

I had a couple of Brooklyn Tech interns who volunteered for me as part of their “Participation in Government” class, who felt very frustrated with the fact that they were unable to fully participate in class, because of its large size. Or read Frank McCourt’s book about teaching at Stuyvesant, who writes that at first, he thought he would get to know to know his students, but quickly gave up on the idea because of the class size.

Also see what Seth Pearce, a student at La Guardia, has written about the need to reduce class size in the NYC student union blog. Seth asked his younger brother, who now attends a private school, what the biggest difference was between his new school and the public school he used to attend:

His answer was quick and simple: the adults in the building have time to care about the students. In the NYC education system, the first step to improving schools is creating a situation in which educators have time to care about the students. This can only come for significant reductions in class size and teacher load.

Teaching loads in a typical NYC high school are about 150 students --almost twice what they are nationally. Let’s say that each teacher has one assignment a week to grade. If it’s 2-5 pages, it would have take at least five minutes to read it; to give meaningful comments, at least ten minutes. That’s more than 25 hours a week right there. Then if each student got a chance to speak one on one with the teacher for 5 minutes a week, that would be another 12 hours or so. So now the teacher has to spend 37 extra hours a week to do the bare minimum necessary to provide an adequate education – a whole second job. This is nearly impossible; as a teacher wrote me,

“The only students who can succeed in the current system are above-average intelligent children from a high supportive family environment. The others fall through the cracks.”

Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reduce class size first in our failing or low-performing schools. But perhaps I’m naïve enough to believe that all public school students who live in NYC deserve the sort of education that those in the suburbs get as a matter of course – with teachers who actually have the time to care about them, and a classroom environment in which they can thrive.

5. I must say that I was relieved that Skoolboy decided not to do the sort of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations he originally envisioned, to make an estimate of the cost-benefits of class size reduction. Why? Because it’s already been done. In fact, the aforementioned Alan Krueger–former chief economist for the US Labor Dept – found that the economic benefits of smaller classes twice outweighed the costs, in what he calls a conservative analysis.

More recently, Peter Muennig in an article in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that class size reduction is not only a great investment in terms of educational benefits, but one of the best in terms of public health as well –rivaling vaccinations, with medical savings of $150,000 or more and almost two more years of life for each student who attends a smaller class in the early grades.

6. Finally, I have to note that Skoolboy’s critical musings on class size are far from untypical – and yet they still perplex me. There seems to be a real double standard in much of what is written on class size by many academics, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Why focus so much energy in trying to knock down class size reduction, given that it has a far stronger research base than nearly anything else attempted in our schools?

Indeed, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Dept. of Education, has concluded that class size reduction as one of only four, evidence-based educational reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments -- the "gold standard" of research. (FYI, the only other three reforms shown to work are one-on-one tutoring by qualified tutors for at-risk readers in grades 1-3 ; life-skills training for junior high students, and instruction for early readers in phonics) .

This combined with the fact that actual practitioners in the field, including teachers and principals, overwhelming respond in surveys that class size reduction would be the most effective way to improve the quality of teaching, I find it hard to understand why there continues to be so much intellectual effort expended in combating any efforts to achieve this. Why does class size attract criticism that other proposed reforms, including expanding the number of charter schools and small schools, implementing merit pay, school grading systems, or high stakes testing, seem to avoid -- indeed most of the strategies favored by this administration - none of which have the same evidentiary support?

It can’t be primarily that class size reduction is too expensive. Perhaps this is why CSR is targeted by conservative academics such as Caroline Hoxby or Eric Hanushek – because they oppose spending more money on anything in public education. Since class size has the strongest support in public opinion and in the research, they must feel driven to slay this dragon over and over again, to keep the threat of rising education expenditures at bay.

Nevertheless, there are many ways to reduce class size without hiring a whole new cadres of teachers, by redeploying existing staff that currently serve in out-of-classroom positions or hiring teachers in place of teaching assistants or administrators, as schools in Burke County NC, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have done, at little added cost.

This should be especially true in NYC, where the teacher/student ratio has grown sharply in recent years, with scant reductions in class size. Indeed, non-teaching teaching positions have proliferated like mad, including literacy and math coaches, lead teachers, now data coaches, and on and on and on. As one teacher wrote to me yesterday:

“There is no lack of teachers already in the schools and the pay roll; however, Klein has encouraged the principals to use these licensed teachers in non-teaching positions. The schools are full of teachers serving as deans, coordinators, staff developers, coaches, administrative assistants and who knows what else….In addition, in many schools these non-teaching teachers are taking up regular classrooms.”

Preliminary calculations of the new contract for excellence submission by the city show that while the DOE claims to have hired almost 2000 teachers this fall to reduce class size, fewer than 300 extra classes are projected – which suggests there is even more extra staff floating around than usual. Not to mention the estimated 700 teachers sitting in the rubber rooms, and 700 more in ATR (absent teacher reserve), who, in many cases, are doing little but acting as occasional subs.

Is this cost-effective, do you think? Why don’t the economists focus on all these inefficiencies, do you suppose, instead of spending their time arguing that class size reduction is too expensive?

Moreover, even if lots new teachers would need to be hired, is CSR really so expensive? Compared to what? It seems to me that if this reform actually works to improve outcomes, and leads to lower rates of disciplinary problems, dropouts and teacher attrition, as the research shows, it is far less expensive than other reforms that may seem on the surface less costly, but have little or no positive effect– or even have negative impacts, as for example, merit pay has been shown to have in North Carolina.

I suspect that if there were only four medical procedures which rigorous evidence had shown been shown to improve health outcomes, and that in survey after survey, hospital administrators and doctors themselves said that adopting one of these would be the most effective way to raise the standard of medical care and life expectancy, there would be little or no controversy in the halls of government or in medical schools about the need to implement it.

The debate would be only how fast, and how to finance this procedure, not whether it was “too expensive” or should be done at all.

But overall, there seems to remain a great deal of undue resistance. I’m no psychoanalyst, but I will speculate nonetheless. I think it may be that no one can make any money or personally profit from class size reduction. It’s a reform that seems awfully simple, and indeed it is.

Teacher colleges can’t market it, as they can a new method of professional development. Textbook companies can’t sell it, as they can a new curriculum. The research think tanks or consulting groups can’t make any money analyzing it, since the studies have already been done. Management consultants wouldn’t dare propose it, since the advice would seem too obvious. The testing companies and tutoring companies can’t use it to pitch their products.

Most of all, it doesn’t seem “trendy” or exciting to many academics who are eager to write their own best-selling versions of “Freakonomics”, or become famous on their findings, unlike a catchy experiment that rewards students with high test scores by giving them cell phones.

There’s also the administration’s control over the data, as Skoolboy himself points out in a comment, as well as its impressive power, wealth and popularity – especially with the business and foundation community. Given all this, perhaps it’s not surprising that criticism of most of the DOE’s unproven and often incoherent reforms is muted, that many academics feel inclined to go with the flow, and instead spend their time sitting in silence until after Bloomberg and company are gone.

There are notable exceptions to the rule; wonderful people in the academic community who have been unafraid to support class size reduction. For example, there’s of course Diane Ravitch, intellectual warrior supreme, but also see this terrific letter to the Governor and the State Legislature, organized last spring by Celia Oyler of Teachers College, asking that some of the additional state education aid be spent in NYC lowering class size in all grades. (More recently Celia put together this quite critical quiz on the new school grading system – which Teachers College has been unafraid to post on its website.)

So why aren’t more academics like Celia, and/or the other signers to her letter? Is it really because of the reasons I’ve cited above, or others yet unmentioned? Please enlighten me, or correct me if I’m wrong -- about any of this.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

This week: Class size, the sequel

Last week, skoolboy wrote a series of posts about class size (see here, here, and here.)

I'll be celebrating the new year on Monday and Tuesday, so we'll meet again in 2008.

On Wednesday, Leonie Haimson of NYC's Class Size Matters will respond to skoolboy's posts. On Thursday and Friday, I'll take a look at the recently released NYC class size data.

In the meantime, check out skoolboy's top 5 education stories of 2007 here. Happy New Year, everyone!