A Class-ic Mistake

Member Group : David Kirkpatrick

Periodically, public education is seized by a fad whether or not it has any real effect. One such is the rush toward reducing class size to some arbitrary number.

Let it first be acknowledged that class size does make a difference but that difference depends on many variables, including grade level, the types of students, the subject matter, teacher skills, teaching method, etc.

California, under former Gov. Pete Wilson, mandated smaller class size in some grades. An initial cost of
$1.5 billion, now grown to $4 billion, resulted in a mad scramble to find teachers and space. Even child-care
centers and libraries were converted to classrooms, hardly a net gain.

Peter Jennings on ABC-TV’s "World News Tonight," February 17 of 1998, reported that 21,000 noncertified teachers were hired. Jennings also cited a district that reduced class size only to see student achievement go down and another did not do so because eight new teachers, and eight new classrooms, would cost more than $1,000,000, money the district did not have.

A little historic perspective might be helpful. On May 19, 1806, the Free School Society in New York City opened its first school, adopting the Lancasterian, or monitorial system, developed in England, whereby one teacher, using student monitors, was in charge of a school of 1,000 students.

By the 1860s, the public system had smaller classes but one New York City teacher had a class of 269 pupils and another had 162. The superintendent said classes of 60 or more were acceptable but they should not exceed 100 students. It was common for even a young woman teacher just out of grammar school to be given a class of nearly 100 six- and seven-year-olds.

A generation ago, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan noted a study by James C. Coleman which concluded that class size, by itself, is unimportant. Moynihan added this was consistent with findings over the previous 40 years.

Students in other nations are commonly in larger classes. The children of the "boat people" from Vietnam in the 1970s performed very well in our public schools, scoring, for example, in the 95th percentile in mathematics.

Yet in Vietnam they had been in schools where the average class size was 75. Japanese high school classes typically have 50 students. A Chinese immigrant who is a computer scientist in Maryland, has said her classes in China typically had 50-60 students. South Korea’s students ranked first in math among 20 nations, yet the average class size there was 43 students.

Oddly enough, the argument that classes are too large has intensified at the same time that the student-teacher ratio, and average class size, has declined. From about 37 students per teacher in 1900, the average dropped to 27 in 1955, to 18 in 1986, and about 17 today.

Eric Hanushek, former Chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Rochester looked at 152 class size studies. He found only 14, less than 1 in 10, reported positive relationships, about an equal number showed negative results, while most showed no significant difference either way.

Assume that reducing classes to 15 in the first two grades would bring gains of 14% as one study suggests.

To go from the current average of about 25 students per class to 15 means there must be 5 teachers and 5 classrooms for every 75 students, compared to the present three of each. That’s a cost increase of 67%, nearly five times the percentage increase in achievement.

And what does a 14% gain mean? If students rank in the 35th percentile a 14% gain, one-seventh, would move them, at great expense, from the 35th to the 42nd percentile still leaving them still well below average.

Further, class size is almost invariably discussed in terms of classes being too big. But many are too small. Enlarging those classes could save money that could be spent where smaller classes are be proven useful.

During World War II, the U.S. Army taught typing in rooms so large that the instructor – a non-certified
soldier-teacher – used a microphone and students listened on headphones. This is because typing is a mechanical skill requiring only repetition until it becomes a habit.

A public school not only could do this, at least one has; Melbourne, Florida High School in the 1960s.

One typing teacher had 125 students per class, five classes per day, for a daily student-load of 625. Principal B. Frank Brown said, "The surprising thing is that we never thought of this before." Few other high schools have thought of it yet.

Or, another example, which should be obvious but is similarly overlooked.

The most common teaching method to this day is the lecture. A high school teacher may have six classes per day of 25 students (I used to have about 33). Presenting a lecture six times, once to each class, is highly inefficient. Would it not be better for the teacher to give the lecture once to the 150 students as a group, and have five periods available for other purposes?

Finally, even if the money is available, to spend billions of dollars on an ineffective practice, such as
arbitrary class sizes, consumes funds that could be better used where there are demonstrated needs or more efficient options.

The fact that people believe something doesn’t make it true.

If it did, the world would be flat.
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