"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, February 16, 2006

More Students, More Better

A couple of days ago Jay Mathew at the Washington Post wrote a stealth editorial (posing as a news story) on the beauty of larger class sizes. The story was studded with prominent voices from the ed industry and right-wing sludge tanks that pump out "educational research" to support the neo-con war effort against public schools.

There was Whittle, the chief corporate socialist among education privatizers, Abigail Thernstrom from the Manhattan Institute, Eric Hanushek, freakonomist who manhandles statistics for the Hoover Institute's "research," and Saul Cooperman, former Ed Commissioner from New Jersey whose expertise conforms to market demands. All of them are aglow with the prospect of jamming more students into already-overcrowded classrooms.

Since I complained to Mathews about this "fair and balanced" piece, Mathews has essentially hidden the piece, and he has altered the original without noting that revisions have occurred. That might satisfy his editors and his conscience (somehow), but it does nothing to bring the lopsidedness of his "news story" to the public attention who read the original.

Here is the logic presented in the piece: We have some good teachers who are good despite the fact that they have over 30 students to a classroom. Because these teachers seem to function (produce high test scores) regardless of class size, let's give them some more students. In fact, let's keep these teachers and get rid of those who are not as good at generating high test scores. Then we can offer a pay raise to attract others who can produce the high test scores regardless of the number of students in the class. This will, in fact, make accountability by testing even for central to what schools do, since teachers with 35-40 students will have their options for assessing student effectively reduced to the preferred regimen of data deposits and data inventories (standardized tests).

Of course, what the most reliable research shows (the STAR study) is that when class size is reduced, not increased, we see performance increases without super-teachers, without re-training, and without turning schools into sweat shops. This from a web site with links to STAR:
A feature edition of The Peabody Journal (Vol. 67, No. 1, Fall 1989/1992), edited by John Folger, included research findings from Project STAR and the fourth grade follow-up. In the paper "Carry-over Effects of Small Classes" J.D Finn, B.D. Fulton, J.B. Zaharias, and B.A. Nye reported that "The results of Project STAR show clearly that average pupil performance in the primary years can be increased (with reduced class size) by approximately one fourth to one third of a standard deviation without the introduction of new materials or curricula and without retraining the teachers." They also stated that in contrast to other education reforms that focus on specific subject areas and generally require some reorganization of course content, teaching strategies, and/or class scheduling "the effects of reduced-size classes were found on every achievement measure administered in Project STAR... To realize proformance gains as extensive as this through any combination of student grouping, individualized instruction, or tutoring would be both difficult and expensive, if it were even possible to implement or maintain such an approach". In summarizing their fourth grade findings, the authors stated that "Significant achievement advantages in a broad range of content areas were maintained one full year after the small classes were disbanded. Further, there is evidence that pupils who had attended small classes became more assertive in classroom participation behavior in comparison to their peer who attended regular size classes."
Who is buying Jay Mathews' lunch? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the Post owns Kaplan, the premier test-prep and tutoring outfit, which has gobbled up, by the way, Quest, the profitable for-profit post-secondary ed outfit.

Could this be related to why the Post keeps this misleading propaganda from 2 months ago on their site:
Literacy of College Graduates Is on Decline: Survey's Finding of a Drop in Reading Proficiency Is Inexplicable, Experts Say (Post, December 25, 2005; Page A12)

Click here for de-bunking post.


  1. Thanks for your comments, Jim. You offer an interesting take on the topic of class size in schools. Your take seems consistent with conventional wisdom.

    Studying influences of class size on student achievement is a technically complicated topic. The overlay of conventional wisdom, political biases, etc. appears to compound these complications.

    About 12 years ago, a doctoral student (I have forgotten her name at the moment) at Illinois State University examined all 1,500 plus empirical studies reported in peer reviewed publications on the topic. About half of the studies reported differences, the other half reported no differences in student achievement.

    After using sophisticated statistical procedures, she found that class size was not related to student performance, once the size exceeded about 15 students.

    In other words, her findings appeared consistent with the impact of small groups on human performance.

    Perhaps you know, I don't, how many such meta studies about class size have been conducted and what their authors found.

    In the long view, many technical alternatives exist today (such as electronic communications) to mitigate whatever affects (not effects) class size may have on the learning rate of an individual student. Kudos to teachers who emphasize these alternatives.

    Keep up your good work, Jim.
    Bob Heiny

  2. "We have some good teachers who are good despite the fact that they have over 30 students to a classroom. Because these teachers seem to function (produce high test scores) regardless of class size, let's give them some more students."

    If we want REAL results, let's hire just one REALLY REALLY good teacher, and let her teach EVERYONE.