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Class Size: Where Belief Trumps Reality
By David W. Kirkpatrick (June 21, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         Class size can make a difference, based on many variables but perhaps no belief is so expensive or contrary to the facts than that which maintains smaller classes, as determined by some arbitrary number, is beneficial to students.
 
         It is to be expected educators will harbor this view because, whatever the impact on students, clearly a teacher with, say, fifteen students per class has less responsibility than one with thirty.  But members of the general public, especially parents of school students stubbornly maintain this view, contrary to history, research findings, and current experience.
 
         Those who, such as this writer has done from time to time over the years, take a contrary view are not merely swimming upstream but they are facing upstream while the current rushes them the other way.
 
         Nonetheless, let's try this one more time.
 
         First, some history.
 
         Class size has been regularly reduced over the years, and is currently smaller than ever.
 
         For example, early in the nineteenth century, under the Lancasterian system, a teacher might be responsible for a class of 1000 or more.  They handled it by using students as assistants.  In New York City schools at the time of the Civil War, relatively untrained young women teachers had classes with as many as 150 students.  Even the superintendent agreed that was unreasonable, that no teacher should have more than 100 students per class.
 
         When this writer began teaching in a public high school more than 45 years ago, the school had an 8-period teaching day.  Teachers typically had six classes, one period of nonteaching duty, and one free period daily.  During the six teaching periods classes commonly had 30-35 students each, giving the teacher a daily student load of 175-200+ students.  Interestingly, although he was for several years president of the local teachers' association, class size rarely came up for discussion.  Today's classes are typically about 25 students and, as we'll see, often mandated to be fewer, yet class size is a constant complaint.
 
         If smaller classes are a guarantee of better education, why hasn't it happened?  Does anyone maintain that public education in New York City today , with many classes of 25 students, and none with 150, is five or six times more effective than was true with the 150 or so in the 1860s?
 
         Then there is research.  A decade ago, Eric Hanushek at the University of Rochester reviewed more than 300 studies of class size.  Almost without exception they concluded it made no difference.  The few positive findings were so minor as to be insignificant.  And they were counterbalanced by a few that found negative results - that is, as class size went down so did student achievement.   Of course educators quote the few with any good news for them, without noting they are the exceptions and the gains are almost nonexistent.
 
         Then there is the classic current experience in California which ten years ago by a statewide law mandated maximum class size in grades 1-3 (later adding 4th grade) of 20.  This cost an additional $1.5 billion the first year.  Ten years later more than $15 billion additional has been spent chasing this moonbeam, with miserable results. Even ignoring such frauds as reported in the March 31 Los Angeles Times of a district that "created phantom classes to pull the wool over state officials' eyes," the paper concluded that "There is still no evidence that the multibillion-dollar investment in small primary classes has made more than an incremental difference."
 
         Talk about waste!  After ten years you would think citizens, particularly irate taxpayers, would be demanding that it's time to give it up. But, no.  The program is still popular.
 
         If they continue to defend this obvious failure at least they could stop complaining about school taxes.
 
         But don't expect that.  This is not a system based on sound research or experience.  What is done is done because that's how it is done.  But if we insist upon ignoring what research suggests is the way to go, at least we should  not do what research suggests doesn't work and, most of all, stop doing those things what clearly do not work.
 
         Don't expect that either.

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         The establishment only demands research findings when they don't like a proposal.  They ignore it if it exists; and seek to prevent research if it's lacking.  Yet they implement their proposals on class size, bilingualism, whole language teaching, school-to-work, etc., on as  wide a basis as possible without research or ignoring hundreds of studies - on building size, certification, etc. -contrary to their views.

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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