Sunday, March 1, 2009

Does class size matter?

A recent NY Times article explores the issue of class size. Below is an excerpt. For the full story, click here>.

In California, a 1996 law provided schools with an extra $1,000 in state money for every student in the earliest grades whose classes had 20 or fewer students. The state quickly hired 28,000 new teachers, but many of them lacked experience or education credentials; a 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the best-qualified teachers fled poorer urban schools as the extra funds created jobs in wealthier areas, and that children who were in smaller third-grade classes did not have higher scores on fifth-grade tests.


  1. I'd hardly call that article the "full story." Can we please get away from these superficial NYT treatments?

    All the news that fits we print!

  2. The article also cites a study that found smaller class sizes work, and an education policy researcher who also is in favor.

    Additionally, California significantly raised the academic standards at each grade level at the time class-size reduction started. It is hard to see (for me, at least) how these standards would be met in classes of thirty students.


  4. Okay, class size matters. Thirty versus twenty students in a kindergarten is a big difference. But I haven't heard of a proposal to put thirty into a class. What about twenty-two? That's what is actually on the table. Would you trade the art teacher for those two extra kids? I wouldn't, necessarily.

    Obviously we need to keep pushing for more funding, and I loathe the Republicans for what they have done to our nation's and state's priorities. But we are in extraordinary circumstances now, however we got here. I don't want huge class sizes as we had when I was a child (I think thirty was normal) or that you see in some parochial schools today. At some point there are diminishing returns when you raise class size. But I could see two more, at the elementary level anyway, if it meant keeping other programs intact.

    Also, it seems to me, from personal experience with pretty good to okay to truly excellent teachers over the years for my kids, that the MOST important thing, besides family support, is the quality of the teacher. A good teacher will work magic with twenty-four kids. A not-so-good one will struggle with eighteen. I've seen both.

    What does the research say about the magic number of twenty, versus eighteen, or twenty-two, or even twenty-four? Serious question.

  5. Reducing class size matters! Getting a more intimate setting where each kid gets more attention is a no-lose situation. Especially for certain kids who might otherwise get lost in bigger classes.

  6. Hard to argue against a more intimate setting and smaller classes, given full funding, but what about this question of 22 kids versus not cutting some other pieces that are also shown to benefit kids, and disadvantaged kids in particular? Reading Recovery teachers and afterschool tutoring are arguably just as important as reduced class size--at least up to a point. I'm not sure that 22 kids is above that point.

    I don't think anyone here has argued against smaller classes, but it may come down to balancing priorities and approaches given the funding situation.

  7. The issue with the 22 kids idea for me is that it is not a guarantee. Poor districts - and poor schools within wealthier districts - will end up loading the classes closer to contractually-allowed minimums (around 31:1) because without the CSR incentive they won't be able to avoid it.

    We can already see this in San Francisco, where some elementary schools with wealthy PTAs reduce their 4-5 classrooms to twenty while other schools in the District have large 4-5s and combination classes to balance out the numbers.

    Also, some wealthy districts had already dropped K-3 classes near 20 (Palo Alto comes to mind) before the CSR program. Others hadn't. So efficacy studies need to control for this and I don't know that they do.

    I do teach and I'm very good at it. I can tell you that the difference between twenty and twenty-four students is quite remarkable. According to the NY Times article cited here, 13-17 children per teacher looks good for low-income children at least. Still, I'm not sure why this is a debate for the public schools. Private schools have very low teacher-student ratios. If it's good enough for wealthy privates, why is it not useful for public schools, particularly those with underserved populations? Even if we don't take this as a social justice issue, we all benefit from well-educated children. Taken a look at California's prison funding and prison population lately?

  8. If we go to 22 students, we lose CSR funding. Once the CSR money is gone, it's pretty much a given that economies of scale will take over, that it just won't make sense budget-wise to stop at 22 because to do so won't save any money.

    From a teacher's point of view, when your rug has 20 squares on it, when you've been equipping a classroom with enough for 20 for years, increasing class size means spending a lot of time and effort to get 2 more of everything. Do you think 2 extra text books per subject, 2 extra desks, etc., are magically going to appear in every class? No, and it will be up to the teachers to hunt all the materials down. Where do you find the extra time to work individually with 2 more students? You don't, you cut down everyone's one-on-one time. These are may seem like small concerns, but most teachers will tell you it's these kinds of things that eat up their time, time they should be spending teaching students.

  9. For me, the problem with an increase to 22 students is that it is what the British call 'the thin end of the wedge.' It is easy to say that just two extra children per classroom won't bring the whole structure tumbling down, but once we have adjusted to 22 instead of 20, then in another year or two, if the economy hasn't recovered fully, we may be looking at another two, because after all, just two more students won't bring the whoile structure down, and then before you know it, we are up to 30 students in first grade again.

  10. Hey, size ALWAYS matters:)

  11. Parents matter. Class size is irrelevant. If you're not involved in your child's education, then I don't care if there's 50 in the class, or you've hired a private tutor.

  12. That is probably one of the most ignorant comments I have seen to date on this blog site, and I have been here a long time. Of course parents matter, but so does class size.

    It would be much more apparent if you had two children. My first was much more advanced than my second. The second would clearly benefit from more attention during the day - after all, the kids are in class from morning until at least afternoon .. they effectively ARE parents!

    Some kids benefit more than others, but there is no doubt that more interaction and attention make a huge difference. Also, it gives the teacher the ability to get to know each child much better as they have more time to iteract with each.

  13. The question is not, does class size matter? The real question is, is it worth it?

    The research indicates that it is not cost effective and that there are many ways to improve schools more by spending the same money in differnent ways.

    So the next question is, do you set policy and budgets based on research? Or do you follow political will and parental instincts?

    Finally, let's be real here. The district will have to make deep, painful cuts. So do they relax class size to trim teacher head count? Or do they make other cuts. Realistically, we are not talking about increasing class size so we can have more libraries/ nurses/ specialists/ PE/ art... We are talking about increasing class size to solve budget problems. The research is still pretty clear that you loose less with bigger classes than you would by cutting administration, specialists, paras,... but it is a different equation.

  14. About CSR funds: as long as it is state policy to subsidize reduced class size I doubt anyone in SFUSD would suggest we increase class size. But the state budget is in such bad shape that those subsidies might very well go away. Then we have to get real about the actual dollars and cents merits of reduced class size.

  15. Class size probably does matter, but it does not matter the MOST.

    Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, The Tipping Point & Outliers) talks about this in his book Outliers. He also wrote a New Yorker piece on it a little while back.

    Here is an excerpt from the article as well as a link to the full article.

    "Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers...."

    Here is the full article.

  16. like we have any control over the teachers we get? this isn't a laboratory!

  17. True, its not a labratory. But one alternative to hiring more teachers is to pay them more and pay them differentially so that the good ones are rewarded and retained.

    Of course it is not that simple. Not by a long shot. But there are ways to make the teaching more collaborative, with more administrative and peer input and review, that facilitate merit pay schemes and that advance teachers' professional development.

    There are no silver bullets. No magic formulas that no one has thought of before. But the idea of allocating more resource toward more effective teacher review, development, and retention is probably more fruitful than just hiring more teachers to do the same thing with smaller classes.

  18. Just ask the private schools.

  19. the private schools are teaching a different population of kids, one that is selected based on their already advantaged backgrounds to be successful under almost any conditions. hard to measure therefore how their small class sizes contribute to their success. no doubt, their small class sizes are a wonderful luxury and one of the reasons the parents pony up the big bucks, but that's not the same thing as measuring class size as a strategy for success, esp with disadvantaged kids. a lot of us parents intuit that it makes a big difference, but i'm not sure it is a proven point as a matter of fact, or at least not compared to other strategies such as teacher recruitment and training, or interventions with specialists, or extended hours for learning.

  20. I'm talking about the teachers at private schools, not class size or class makeup:

    But there are ways to make the teaching more collaborative, with more administrative and peer input and review, that facilitate merit pay schemes and that advance teachers' professional development.

  21. By coincidence, I just noticed a blog post over on the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council blog citing some fresh research that also indicates class size is not that important. I just had to write about all this on my SfSchools blog.

  22. KC, the quote from that article on your blog says:

    "Of the five factors, school size and parental involvement “didn’t seem to matter all that much,” Lubienski said, citing a weak correlation between the two factors as “mixed or marginally significant predictors” of student achievement."

    That's school size NOT class size. Two very different things!

  23. I find it hard to believe that parental involvment, parental influence in education is not one of the most important factors.

    K BMK Sullivan -- your comment is NOT one of the most ignorant, despite what a poster responded to you.

    The family and the cultural value of the importance of education is very very critical.

    For instance, Asians (Chinese, Indians etc) are known to place a very high premium on education. The parents are sometimes immigrants without much education but they put a high premium on education and in general the children do "well" in school. For better or worse, sacrificing other enrichment type activities at times.

  24. Class size matters very much! When I started teaching, there were 32 children in first grade. It was very difficult to meet the needs of individual children: many fell through the cracks, ending the year without developing necessary skills. I found it nearly impossible to meet with each family during conference week. Class size reduction changed the game radically. I fell in love with my job again.

    You want two more children, now, then maybe two more and then more as the economy continues to circle the drain? No thanks. We're trying to give all children the instruction they need to to achieve their dreams. We are trying to close the achievement gap. It isn't trivial, and it sure isn't easy.

    How about spending less money on testing instead? The federal government only asks for standardized testing from third grade up. California insists on testing second graders. Very, very expensive, testing is.

  25. I'm for spending less money on administration. Looking for ways to streamline.
    Maybe have schools trying to do everything, have schools that specialize more and get economies of scale --
    But for sure there has got to be layers of bureaucracy that can be cut.
    For sure the in classroom time is most important.
    Getting parents or other adults to volunteer and come in the classroom to help the teacher would be great too though not always possible and some parents may not always be helpful.

    I think the adult/child ratio does make a difference. maybe not 2 more but for sure 32 to 1 is crazy.

  26. I meant to say, rather than try to have schools do everything, try to have schools specialize more and be really really excellent at what it is they do.

  27. That's school size NOT class size. Two very different things!

    Doh! My bad. I thought that part of the article was muddled, but it was me who was confued. I guess I was reading what I expected to see, since there have been other studies that have cast doubt on the impact of class size.

  28. Hard to measure therefore how their small class sizes contribute to their success. no doubt, their small class sizes are a wonderful luxury and one of the reasons the parents pony up the big bucks, but that's not the same thing as measuring class size as a strategy for success, esp with disadvantaged kids.

    So to them that hath shall be given? This line of reasoning is problematic to me. It may be interesting to research, but it is disturbing from a social justice perspective.

    Parents matter. Class size is irrelevant. If you're not involved in your child's education, then I don't care if there's 50 in the class, or you've hired a private tutor.

    Without addressing the importance of parents and the biases in this comment, I wonder what you would do, then, for the students in high-needs, underserved schools whose parents for whatever reason do not have the "involvement" you feel is necessary.

    I don't think it is fair to say that parental involvement in the schools is a universally-important value or universally possible. Perhaps looking at this issue from the perspectives of other parents and school stakeholders might be of use.

    This also ignores the vast inequities in American schools and in SFUSD schools in particular.

  29. Talk about desperate lemonade... the public schools need to up the class size limit and you all say it's a good thing after all...

  30. "How about spending less money on testing instead? The federal government only asks for standardized testing from third grade up. California insists on testing second graders. Very, very expensive, testing is."

    Hmmm. This just makes too much sense, doesn't it? I think the maturity jump from 2nd to 3rd also makes this a more humane practice. I hate watching second graders take the state tests. Their teachers assess them enough in class. Save the bubble tests until third grade when more children are developmentally ready.

    Regarding class size, ask the teachers. Keeping the lower grades at 20 makes a huge difference.

  31. FYI some SFUSD schools have already increased class size to 22 in Kindergarten. In addition, a letter from the superintendent informed of an increase in class size to 21 in all Kindergarten classes district wide effective immediately.

  32. 7:34, that's not quite right. First of all, I don't know of any Kindergartens with 22 students right now. Secondly, the letter that was sent out put schools on notice that K classes may be increased to 21 students, not that they have been. The way class size reduction works is a given school must keep the average number of students in a K-3 class at or below 20.44 for the time period from the 1st day of school until April 15. I know of a class that did have a 21st student placed just after the superintendent's letter came out, but that class will still meet the 20.44 student average required to receive CSR funds. Technically, they could put another 10 students in every Kindergarten on April 16, and still meet the legal requirements for CSR.

  33. I have some questions about these studies that show limited/no effect to CSR:

    1. Do these studies cover California?
    2. Do they control for the realignment of state standards? The jump was huge for K standards, and this alone may have impacted achievement results.
    3. Do these studies compare low-, middle-, and high-income districts/students?
    4. Do they consider the opportunity gap?
    5. How do these studies account for the difference between a district that was, say, at 23:1 to one that was at 31:1 prior to CSR?
    6. How about half-day vs. full-day K?

    Honestly, you seem pretty convinced by this research, while the only citation you've given covered something else entirely.

  34. 9:45, Excellent quesitons. I'm not familiar with the studies in question, rather I'm recycling information gleaned from articles I've read. I'll see if I can follow the trail to the actual research. Maybe others here can chime in with some links?

    I'm not sold one way or another on the question of class size. I suspect it is more valuable in K-3 than in upper grades. But I'm also inclined to believe that other factors are more important -- especially teacher 'quality' -- which is why I put this question in the context of the relative priority of things like proffesional development, teacher pay and retention. You raise some other critical factors like early education, socio-economic demographics... I might add other like school leadership, resource specialists, etc.

    In the current budget climate, where we are faced with really gut wrenching choices, I'm playing devil's advocate and suggesting that maybe reduced class size is not as critical as everyone assumes. Then again, maybe it is. But it is important to weigh this against what research and best practices tell us, and allocate dwindling resourced accordingly.

  35. KC:

    I bring up the issue of prior class sizes (which is a pretty good proxy for district wealth) because the only California studies I've seen of CSR found increased achievement in low-income school districts, which researchers attributed to the significant class size decrease in those districts (as compared to the much smaller decrease in wealthier districts).

    Regardless, given that the standards realignment and CSR occurred more or less at the same time, it's very hard to separate them - besides which, long-term studies are even now a little premature.

    Even as a devil's advocate, if you are going to take this position I think you need to consider all of these factors. Do you think that California's new, much more rigorous content standards can be reached in a 30:1 classroom?

    And more broadly, if we are all advocates for our public schools, do we do them a service by agreeing to the idea that we should always cut their funding?

  36. Studies or not, class size matters - it's one of the top factors we were looking at when choosing a school for our children. Although it matters more for some children than others, there is no doubt it is a critical success factor.

  37. I've Never Posted Here before but want to say how much I appreciated everyone's thoughts on the subject.