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Smaller Classes = Lower Achievement; Counter-Intuitive?
By David W. Kirkpatrick (June 28, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
        Last week's commentary on class size brought a response from one reader that possible adverse affects of smaller classes seems to be counter-intuitive.  Indeed it does, which is one reason that the great majority of people, average citizens as well as educators, ignore any evidence contrary to this belief.
 
         There are a number of theoretical reasons why smaller classes may be harmful and waste money but California's statewide implementation five years ago limiting students to twenty in grades 1-3 gives a number of real-life examples.
 
         For one thing, to meet the needs of this limit, in addition to the usual annual need for thousands of new teachers, something like 60,000 additional teachers were needed when the limit went into effect. This meant the usual requirements often had to be relaxed if not ignored.  As a result  many individuals were hired who lacked the usual credentials and/or a track record of successful experience. Poorer teaching, causes lower achievement.
 
         In brief, the quality of teachers sometimes declined and with it the learning experience for significant numbers of students, resulting in less learning on their part.
 
         Second, these additional teachers were needed statewide, including affluent suburban districts and other districts that might, for whatever reason, be attractive for teachers.  Since these additional teachers could come from anywhere, many came from inner-city districts that were less satisfactory to teachers.  That not only met the need for these "better" districts but meant they could satisfy the state mandates with qualified teachers.  The catch, of course, was that they could do so only by drawing some staff from urban schools.  Since they could afford to be picky, they were not only drawing teachers from schools with some of the neediest students but they were hiring the best ones available.  The result?  A decline of teacher quality in many of the schools who could least afford such a loss, with a consequent negative impact on students who already were behind the learning curve.
 
         This also gave a realistic answer to the theoretical question of whether you would prefer to have your child in a class of 30 with a school district's best teacher or in a class of 20 with one of its least effective teachers.
 
         As an aside, this is a version of the question applied to the growing establishment of cyber schools as to whether a student is better off online with the best teacher available or with a weaker teacher in a typical classroom.
 
         Third, hiring 60,000 additional teachers without sufficient lead-time to phase the new program in meant there was a corresponding immediate need for 60,000 classrooms.  Since 60,000 empty classrooms just waiting to be utilized didn't exist even in a state the size of California, other, often-unsatisfactory, adjustments  had to be made.
 
         The result was the use of many non-classroom spaces for a least an interim period while additional steps could be taken.  Some of these alternatives were portable classrooms which, while not an ideal answer at least were spaces intended to be used for classrooms at least temporarily.  This was not true of other approaches, such as having two classes simultaneously in one large room, using storage rooms, or any other space, however inadequate for the purpose, that could hold one teacher and 20 students.
 
         As for the perceived intuitive belief that smaller classes are automatically better than larger ones, consider another real-life reality.  Assume a 30-minute instructional period for a subject in grades 1-3.  And assume every minute is instructional time which, of course, it is not.  The teacher attempting individual attention in a class of 30 has an average of one minute per child.  California's mandate of a maximum 20 students means the teacher has 90 seconds per student, 30 seconds more.  Per half hour.  The other 28.5 minutes must be devoted to the other 19 students.
 
         Hardly the formula for outstanding results.
 
         One outcome has been costs. Three teachers for sixty students rather than two means they increased 50%.
 
         The guaranteed winners?  Teacher unions.  60,000 more teachers, 90% of whom typically join the unions, and $600 dues, has raised union income $32,400,000 annually, or nearly $200 million by this fall.
 
         No wonder they support smaller classes.

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         "It's a dubious assumption that thirty children with an unfit teacher are better off then if they were spread out through other classes, with better teachers..." p. 251, Myron Brenton, What's Happened to Teacher?, NY: Coward-McCann Inc., 1970

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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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