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.


Diana said...

Thanks, Skoolboy, for a great post! You raise an important question. Why has raising student achievement (on tests) become the ONLY goal? Don't we have a vision of education any more? (I do. I bet you do too. But the achievement stampede is creating such a thick dust cloud, it seems policymakers see nothing else.)

Patrick Sullivan said...

It is disappointing that you've chosen to discuss a topic of the utmost concern to public school parents in NYC when many of us are otherwise preoccupied with our families and not able to participate in the discussion fully. So let me spend my limited time on this Christmas eve being candid. Coming to the education world fairly recently I've been struck by level to which class size has been proven by research, especially the Tennessee study. It seems to be the one policy in education that has been rigorously demonstrated, certainly more so than the oft-mentioned "alternatives" of longer school day, charter schools, small schools, etc.

Perhaps you or eduwonkette could address a different question this week -- one that has perplexed me recently. Why is it that so few academics are willing to go on the record on their concerns about the Bloomberg education policy and record. I can count them on one hand: Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, David Bloomfield, Pedo Noguera and Luis Reyes. Everyone else either says nothing or hides behind pseudonyms. Why? What is the point of being tenured if you are afraid of speaking out.

June said...

Thank you for a great and balanced post skoolboy.

A couple of my own thoughts:

1. You wrote "reducing class size is perceived as expensive". It is not perceived, class size reduction (CSR) IS expensive. One can only see the trouble California has faced in their CSR policy. The California case also shows how reducing class size introduces pressure on other aspects of the system (for example, thousands of new teachers are needed, and thousands of new classrooms need to be built)... this all costs immense $$$.

2. Your second point is that CSR should be valid on the grounds that it's better for teachers' work environment and students' learning. I agree with you to a point. I think we in education must realize that we're working with finite resources... so the question really becomes, what should we focus on? As you point out the CSR research does not find a clear class size effect (aside from the Tennessee randomized trial). Futhermore, it is not guaranteed that teachers will change their pedagogy to better take advantage of smaller classes (which is needed to improve the student learning experience).

So given these contraints, and the limited financial resources available, should we spend the billions of dollars on CSR to improve teacher satisfaction and maybe take a chance that teachers will take advantage of smaller classes to better serve students? Or should we spend the $$$ on something that might make a bigger imapact?

On moral grounds I support smaller classes. They just make intuitive sense. But taking a closer analysis of the policy, and its cost-effectiveness, I have a lot of questions.

dt said...

I agree with all four of you in both your logic and conclusions.

Last year (for a lot of complex reasons) our inner city high school was understaffed by 25%, but it didn't save any money because we eventually had to hire warm bodies, and amazingly one great young teacher, and dealing with the resulting academic failure, the violence, and the loss of students was expensive. This year (although we were told it is a one-time event) we were "overstaffed" by 25% and it has made me rethink everything. Problems that always seemed insurmountable now seem managable.

This year when a riot almost occurred at the bus stop, I immediately got backup from an assistant principal, another teacher, the parent laison, and two police, and the problem disappeared. We've stopped two guns this year BEFORE they were pulled. If a student is having a bad day, crying, or silently seething and you have thirty kids in class, which probably means you have rival gangs in the room, the teen can't look weak and the teacher faces additional issues when classmates juice up the situation. When there is a dozen students in class, everyones' humanity and decency takes over.

But we must learn from the California experience. We don't have nearly enough qualified teachers to fill today's urban classrooms and we can't hope to find enough to immediately staff additional classes. And if we are going to hire more teachers, we need to plan in advance for dealing with the ineffective newcomers.

And besides, as long as we are imposing excessive test prep and taking away the autonomy and respect for inner city teachers, we won't retain qualified teachers.

This is one more reason why Obama's plan and the Talent Development High Schools make so much sense. We need to recruit the full range of adults - dropout counselors, nurses and mental health counselors, parole officers and social workers, retired military, and Baby Boomers who want to rejoin the civil rights struggle. Any loving adult is needed regardless of whether they have a degree.

Plus, the recruitment of a wide range of adults should encourage the development of a more respectful culture. Neither teachers or students should be subjected to the abuse they face in urban schools. If we weren't so ghetto-ized I doubt we would treat each other so badly.

Which gets us back to your argument about the moral imperative.

John Thompson

Rachel said...

So given these contraints, and the limited financial resources available, should we spend the billions of dollars on CSR to improve teacher satisfaction and maybe take a chance that teachers will take advantage of smaller classes to better serve students? Or should we spend the $$$ on something that might make a bigger imapact?

Do you have suggestions for what might have a bigger impact?

Living in a school district that hasn't succumbed to the "test scores as the only goal" way of thinking, the benefits of lower class size for teacher and parent morale are clear.

But it also seems that lowered class size may make a lot of other educational reforms possible. Improved or innovative teaching isn't likely to happen in a "living on the edge of manageable" environment.

Finally, to go back to the "intangibles" of education... If one looks at what parents who have the means to choose actually choose, small classes are very high on the list. Private schools don't advertise "longer school day" or "paced instruction," they advertise "small classes" and "individualized instruction."

Maybe, in the world of limited resources, small class size isn't always going to be a school's highest priority. But until we have class size small enough that it isn't a factor in driving teachers and families away from public education, I think it needs to be a very high priority for anyone who truly values equitable public education.

June said...

Thanks for your comment Rachel. I pose the question "Or should we spend the $$$ on something that might make a bigger impact?" as a rhetorical one for people to think about.

This post only focuses on class size, and it is easy to say "it needs to be a very high priority for anyone who truly values equitable public education"... however, someone else might say reducing the digital divide in for our public school students and investing in technology should be a high priority for equitable education.... someone else might say ensuring that every classroom has a highly qualified teacher and thus we should pay teachers more should be a high priority... another might say we need to invest in more textbooks and curricular materials, especially in under-served school districts....

My point is "anyone who truly values equitable public education" might champion any number of ideas and still be a stand-up person (since you imply in your comment that disagreeing with class size reduction makes someone inherently unethical)... If we are working under finite resources, how do we make decisions on what to focus on?

I don't have the answers otherwise I'd be rich and famous and advising this year's presidential candidates... but, it is a question I pose to any serious education thinker, and am interested in hearing thoughts from other intelligent people.

Patrick Sullivan said...

Since I've gotten a couple of notes from teachers, I would like to clarify that my question above is directed at university faculty in the education and related fields, not at tenured public school teachers. I have spoken to enough U-rated and rubber room teachers to know the risks when teachers speak out.

eduwonkette said...

Hi everyone,

Let me take a stab at Patrick’s question – “Why is it that so few academics are willing to go on the record on their concerns about the Bloomberg education policy?” Keep in mind that this is not a description of what should be, but what is:

1) What Bloomberg education policy?: Academics are rewarded for publishing in peer reviewed journals and winning large grants, not for keeping up with what’s going on in the school system around them, writing op-eds, or talking to reporters. This reward structure persists once professors have tenure.

Most NYC education faculty aren’t in schools regularly, nor do they talk to people who work in schools regularly. There are so many things happening so quickly, and many of these policy changes are enormously complex. It’s hard to keep up with everything that’s going on, much less to have an opinion about it.

2) The “show me the data” problem: Academics need data to analyze and/or access to schools. What’s the chance that NYC’s research office would release data and/or approve one’s request to do research if you had ever spoken against this administration? Close to zero.

3) The “Bloomberg is shaking up a broken system” argument: There are a dizzying number of changes happening at once, and some of these proposals are good ideas. If implemented with precision and care, they could actually work. In short, there is no academic consensus about NYC education policy.

4) David versus Goliath: Patrick, you are wondering why people who do have clearly articulated problems with any given policy are not coming forward. Look no further than the DOE’s attack on Diane Ravitch. Few have the courage to step directly into the line of fire.

Comments, disagreements, juju are all welcome.

skoolboy said...

eduwonkette and I overlap a bit in our take on this issue. Patrick raises the question, "what is the point of tenure if you're afraid of speaking out?" It's important to note that tenure represents an arrangement between a professor and a college or university. Tenure in U.S. colleges and universities is intended to ensure academic freedom--the right to teach and engage in research freely, without fear of institutional censorship. My institution has a firm commitment to academic freedom, and my students would tell you that I do not shy away from criticizing the policies and practices of the federal government and the New York City Department of Education in my classes. And some of the research I do illuminates inequities in the NYC system. But Patrick is right: I don't go out of my way to publicly call out policies. Why not? The short answer is, the kind of work that I and my colleagues do--research, school-university collaboration, teacher preparation--obliges us to work with some of the very people that I see as representing the problem. And though tenure protects me within the university, there is no parallel protection if I piss off a powerful administrator. Data can dry up; research can get shut down; university staff can be told that they're no longer welcome in a set of schools. I wish that this were not the case, and, as many people have noted, this particular administration seems less tolerant of dissent than others in recent memory. Please don't assume that my decision to adopt the skoolboy persona, and not to use my real name, is a decision I make lightly.

ed notes online said...

All or nothing at all?

I haven't absorbed all the posts above this one yet but something strikes me about an "all or nothing" approach to class size when it comes to cost.

Not enough research? Let's try some experiments. With 1500 schools in NYC what better place? Why not take 5 of the so-called "failing" schools and load them up with teachers (and probably a few extra people to assist in guidance, social work -- to get some dialogue going with the home)? The cost of limited experiment would be peanuts relatively. So you don't have the money to scale up? That is fine. At least we'll know that there's always money for war but not for ed.

But let's not stop there. Make prof. development a part of it in terms of working with smaller classes.

Still not enough. Since I taught in elementary school, class size has a different impact in a self-contained classroom. Our one prep period a day was so often viewed as just that - a prep for the teacher with little attempt to develop good programs for these times.

How about a team approach? Like give 5 or 6 or better yet 7 teachers about 100 kids and a wing of a building and let them work with this group for 3 year cycles at a time? Say for grades k-2 and 3-5? Mix kids beyond grades so older kids can be sort of assisters to younger ones.

I'm sure middle school and high school teachers have their own vision of what could be done.

There are lots of options for true ed reform instead of the models being put out there by Bloomberg/Klein. Debbie Meier, who I first heard of when I was trying out open classrooms in the 70's has put out so many good ideas that have been ignored.

One of them is to go beyond the simple narrow test assessment when researchers want to measure the impact of class size. I used to take lots of trips (my principal tried to stop them because they interfered with test prep) and the impact cannot be measured.

Recently I had a conversation with a former 6th grade student from 1979 - yikes - she's in her 40's now. She said she took her 2 kids regularly to the museum of natural history because of our trips. Then on to the adventure playground in Central Park. They asked her why these ventures were so important to her. She told them "you don't know how much of my life was part of these trips."

True assessment 30 years later.