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Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be Goal: another ridiculous column by Jay Matthews

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  • Leonie Haimson
    Another ridiculous column from Jay Matthews, see below and here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2009/03/for_monday.html Go and vote on the
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2009

      Another ridiculous column from Jay Matthews, see below and here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2009/03/for_monday.html  Go and vote on the page for smaller classes now!

      Matthews column makes the argument commonly repeated by DOE that great teachers are more important than small classes, using an example a rehearsal for a Shakespeare play; with 60 students in the rehearsal led by a “great” LA teacher”.  What relation a play rehearsal has to a regular class, never mind. 

      But there is no trade-off between teacher quality and class size ever shown in the research.  Perhaps great teachers can succeed even with large classes; but they cannot do their best, and for the vast majority of teachers, class size is even more important.  Finally, there is no proven way to create more “great” teachers – either through recruiting or training – contrary to what he argues below.

      Matthews repeats the same old canards that have been long disproven about class size:

      1. That class sizes have to get below twenty to make a big difference.  No!  there are numerous studies that show that the effects of class size are roughly linear – and with no particular threshold that needs to be reached to produce better results from class size reduction.

      See this, article: Achievement Differences and School Type: The Role of School Climate, Teacher Certification, and Instruction

      American Journal of Education, v115 n1 p97-138 Nov 2008, showing that smaller classes were correlated w/ higher scores on the Math NAEP test for fourth graders, in the range of 21 or more:  average class sizes of greater than 25 students (five on the 1–5 scale) scored an estimated .7 points lower than demographically equivalent schools reporting class sizes of 21–24 students (four on the scale). “


      See also OECD (2001). Knowledge and skills for life. First results from PISA 2000. Paris , pp. 202 - 205.  The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study (2000) of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15 year olds in 32 countries found that as the student-teaching ratio rises above 25, there is a continuous decline in school performance in all three areas of reading, math and science. The PISA study predicted that a student score which is ten points higher in one school than another is associated with an average of 3.3 fewer students per teacher.


      FYI, Alan Krueger showed effects from the STAR data for classes as large as 22 compared to 25  -- with the smaller the class the better the outcome within this range. Alan B. Krueger, "Experimental Estimates of Education Production Functions," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 114, Issue 2, May 1999.  This paper is available at http://www.irs.princeton.edu/pubs/pdfs/379.pdf, see esp. pgs. 30-31.


      These studies also reveal that there is no threshold for class size effects: Donald McLaughlin and Gili Drori, School-Level Correlates of Academic Achievement: Student Assessment Scores in SASS Public Schools, U.S. Department of Education, 2000; http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000303.pdf.   David Grissmer, et.al., Improving Student Achievement: What State NAEP Test Scores Tell Us,   Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000, www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR924/  See also Harold Wenglinsky, When Money Matters, Educational Testing Service, April 1997; http://www.ets.org/research/pic/wmm.pdf


      See also this recent  study from Europe: "Teachers' Training, Class Size and Students' Outcomes: Learning from Administrative Forecasting Mistakes" IZA Discussion Paper No. 3871 http://ftp.iza.org/dp3871.pdf :  The study looked at class sizes between 15 and 34 “.Class size has a significant impact on students’ outcomes. The impact is quite similar in reading and in mathematics, close to 3% of a standard deviation of final test scores… This impact is substantial: reducing the class size by 10 students increases the final test scores by 25 to 30 percentage points….roughly equal to the effect reported in the Tennessee STAR…. The effect of class size is more beneficial in classes with a low initial average achievement than in classes with a better achievement; the students in the former classes would benefit most from a decrease in class size. The effect is particularly large for classes in priority education areas. On the contrary, it seems that such classes do not benefit from the training of their teachers.

      2. There is little effect of smaller classes in middle or high school; No!  There are at least 15 studies which show that smaller classes are correlated with significantly higher achievement in the middle and upper grades.  See for example the PISA study, the McLaughlin and Drori study, and the Wenglisky study above. Two others from the last year alone are here:

      A longitudinal analysis found that smaller classes in the 8th grade are associated with significantly higher levels of student engagement, with the expected economic benefits from  reducing class size in urban schools nearly twice the estimated costs. Thomas Dee and Martin West, “The Non-cognitive returns to class size,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 13994; April 2008; http://www.swarthmore.edu/Documents/academics/economics/w13994.pdf

       A detailed observational study shows that when secondary students are place in smaller classes, much greater time is spent “on task” and focused on learning, with special benefits for low-achievers and far lower rates of negative behavior. Peter Blatchford et.al, “Do low attaining and younger students benefit most from small classes? Results from a systematic observation study of class size effects on pupil classroom engagement and teacher pupil interaction”, presented to the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting 2008, posted at http://www.classsizeresearch.org.uk/aera%2008%20paper.pdf.

      Both these studies also show that there is no threshold effect, by the way. Blatchford paper says this: “There was not a clear and consistent picture regarding size of classes below or above which [class size] effects were most evident. Whilst it is recognised that the threshold debate has been mostly addressed at academic outcomes, the present findings suggest that it is probably over simplistic to talk about thresholds below and above which effects across all outcomes knock in, or identify optimal class sizes in an exact way.

      3.  There is a tradeoff between teacher quality and class size.  No! In fact, many studies show lower rates of teacher attrition when class sizes are reduced, meaning that smaller classes will lead to a more experienced and effective teaching force.

      Moreover, in nationwide surveys, educators themselves overwhelmingly respond that the best way to improve teacher quality is to reduce class size. See for example, this 2008 Public Agenda survey, 97% of teachers said that reducing class size would be "a very effective" or “effective” way of improving teacher quality, far outstripping every other option, including more PD, higher salaries or teacher merit pay. 11 Public Agenda, “Lessons Learned, Issue No. 3: New Teachers Talk About Their Jobs, Challenges and Long-Range Plans,” May 26, 2008. 

      4.       Adding time to the school day is more cost-effective than reducing class size.  No!  First of all, adding two hours to the school day, as Matthews proposes below, is very expensive – probably would cost as much as a 25% or more increase in teacher salaries; you could get significantly classes without hiring 25% more teachers. 

      Also, many studies have shown inclusive results from extending the school day.  See this, for example: In the chapter called “Time for School: Its duration and allocation” in http://epsl.asu.edu/epru/documents/EPRU%202002-101/epru-2002-101.htm  in "School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence” :
       Gene Glass finds that even small (10-15%) increases in the time allocated for schooling would be expensive and would not produce appreciable gains in academic achievement – especially as compared to smaller classes:
      ”Within reason, the productivity of the schools is not a matter of the time allocated to them. Rather it is a matter of how they use the time they already have.”
      See also the comments in a RAND report called “Ending Social Promotion in Grades K-8about the problems with afternoon programs for struggling students, particularly in elementary schools:  http://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR424/;  “Some felt that younger students struggled to sit through these extra hours of instruction. In fact, one district shortened its tutoring program to address this problem, but inadvertently created another problem: instructors reported not being able to accomplish a lot in such a short period of time. A staff person in this district’s research office reported that “you get minimal bang for the buck” with the after‐school program because “it is hard to get it going in the afternoon. After you give them a snack and clean up there just isn’t a lot of time.” And : The district’s 2003‐04 evaluation of its after‐school program found minor differences between the academic achievement of students in the program and comparison groups. The evaluators conclude that there was “minimal” or “debatable” practical significance to these results and that “a cost‐benefit analysis is warranted to determine if outcomes justify the continued expenses” of the program. 

      See also Education Sector report here: http://www.educationsector.org/research/research_show.htm?doc_id=442238:  “The logic of time reform is simple more time in school should result in more learning and better student performance. But this seemingly straightforward calculation is more complex than it appears. Research reveals a complicated relationship between time and learning and suggests that improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school.”

      Indeed, quality of instructional time is far more important that the quantity.  You can vote for smaller classes on the page.  Go vote now!



      Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be Goal

      Jay Matthews, Washington Post

      March 2, 2009

      Here and in the rest of the country, school superintendents who have been forced to raise class size hope they can reduce the number of students per class when budget troubles ease. Having seen many successful large classes and many abysmal small ones, I wonder whether that would be the best use of our tax dollars.

      Let's pretend Fairfax County schools get a surprise $44 million from the federal stimulus package this summer. With that money, the school system could make each class, on average, two students smaller, or it could do what some high-achieving schools do: Keep class sizes large and focus instead on more energetic recruiting and training of teachers. Research indicates that a two-student reduction would make little difference. Why not see what better instruction could do?

      Or, try this thought experiment: The principal says your child can be transferred to the school's best teacher, an imaginative and energetic motivator, but that will push the class's size up to 30. Would you decline the offer? I wouldn't.

      Maybe a visit to Room 56 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles will help. It has far more students than is considered wise -- 31 fifth-graders taught by Rafe Esquith. I stopped there one day last month because Esquith is amazing to watch. There were actually 60 students in the 29-by-27-foot room that afternoon because Esquith, who has no classroom aide, had invited volunteers to join Room 56's annual Shakespeare rehearsals. This year's play is "The Merchant of Venice," with musical interludes also performed by 10-year-olds. The students are mostly from low-income Hispanic and Korean American families, but their test scores are high and their English vocabularies exceptional.

      Esquith, whose third book on teaching comes out in August, agrees with me that class size is a factor in learning. Smaller classes mean more attention for each child, but the impact is minimal compared with making the instructor more effective. "A great teacher can teach 60," Esquith told me. "A poor teacher will struggle with five."

      That is not, in my experience, much of an exaggeration. I have seen some high school teachers keep as many as 50 students moving forward, with enthusiasm, in challenging classes. They do what Esquith does. Lessons are lively. Students are encouraged to adopt a team spirit to support each other as they learn. Some of the highest-achieving middle schools in some of our poorest neighborhoods average 28 to 30 students per class. On the other side of the bell curve, I have spent time in D.C. high school classes where no more than 15 students ever showed up, but worn-out teachers gave them little to do.

      Katherine K. Merseth, director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Teacher Education Program, said her recent study of high-performing urban charter schools shows them focusing more on improving teaching than reducing class size. Increasing time for instruction also seems to have more impact. Esquith often spends 12 hours a day in Room 56, which he acknowledges is extreme. But Massachusetts has gotten significant results in 26 schools by adding just two hours to the school day and more money for teachers.

      You don't hear much about this at school board meetings. The assumption that reducing class size is paramount has become rooted in our culture, and public officials risk censure if they say otherwise. Of course, I am sure Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale believes it when he says raising class size is "the last resort" in his budget cutting. The same goes for union leaders who have put class-size reduction at the top of their agenda. They think this will improve the working conditions of their members and help their students.

      But when the Center for Public Education examined 19 studies of class-size effects that met its research standards, it reached two interesting conclusions. First, most of the studies focused on kindergarten through third grade, and most of the beneficial effects of smaller classes seem to occur in those years, when students are learning to read. Spending money on class-size reduction for those kids makes sense, as several local school systems have shown.

      Second, the studies showed little effect from class-size reduction unless the number of students was 20 or fewer, and little effect in middle or high schools.

      For most schools, getting class-size averages to less than 20 students won't happen unless somebody strikes oil in the playground. Teaching 30 or more kids challenges even the best instructors, but people like Esquith and his disciples have made it work. They say they prefer a larger class to sending students off to the listless buck-passing that infects many urban classrooms. Smaller classes or better teachers? We want both, of course, but the best educators have convinced me we ought to vote for getting more people like them.

      E-mail: mathewsj@...



      Leonie Haimson
      Executive Director
      Class Size Matters
      124 Waverly Pl.
      New York , NY 10011


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