Sunday, September 28, 2008

Class size matters

One of the main reasons I wrote a book was that there were so many times that I would hear statements by so-called experts about public schools that didn't square with my own experience. Those experts would often claim that their statements were based on some sort of "study" or "research." One of the best examples of this actually came in a book I read after I wrote my own--Jay P. Greene's Education Myths. Greene basically claimed that class size doesn't matter. Well, it does.

Joanne Jacobs ran a post yesterday called "Is TSL the Answer?" which is also based on research, but this is research a teacher could learn to love. This research was done by Bill Ouchi, and it indicates that class size is very important. That squares with the experience of almost any teacher who has spent any amount of time in a classroom.

Oh yes, there are exceptions. One of the worst classes I've ever had was one of the smallest classes I've ever had. It had five or six really disruptive kids, and the motivation of the class as a whole was very low. I'd get a headache just thinking about the class. On the other side of the coin, one of the best classes I ever had was one of the largest classes I ever had--up until the last couple of years, that is. That was a regular American History class with 27 kids, but there was an unusually high number of motivated students in it. That class was an absolute delight. But most classes have more of a mixture of kids--a couple who are pretty motivated, one or two who are mildly disruptive, and a lot who fall somewhere in the middle. In those classes, size definitely matters.

Up until just a few years ago, I was very fortunate. My classes were usually around twenty-two or twenty-three kids. Our school district has had to make cuts, however, so things have changed. This year each of my three regular American History classes have thirty-two kids in them. If anyone thinks its not harder for me to do the kind of job that I want to do, they are out of their minds. My classroom is so crowded with desks that just walking up and down the rows is a challenge. I tend to evaluate just about everything, and correcting papers seems to take forever. In social studies and English, there is nothing like having the students write to bring about and measure learning, but the more kids I have, the less attractive making writing assignments becomes. It also becomes increasingly difficult to try to give the attention to low achievers that might be able to motivate them to do better.

Class sizes have increased throughout our school district during the last several years, and there has been a very noticeable deterioration in the behavior, motivation, and performance of our high school students. Gee, is it possible there's a connection?


Blogger Mrs. C said...

I do wonder if the things we've talked about in the past, such as allowing unmotivated students to drop out and/or redirecting them to other classes, wouldn't help considerably in your case regardless of class size. I say this because colleges seem to do just fine with larger classes (for the most part).

Our district has just somehow discovered millions of bucks missing. (Magically, right after they PASSED A BOND ISSUE. But I'm not cynical...) They're saying that they are going to cut out the field trips and some of the staff. Things are already crowded enough as it is.

If I were beginning over again with Patrick and G, I'd seriously have to consider homeschooling. At present my student: teacher ratio is 2:1, or 4:1 if you count the infants at home during the day. (Older two are in ps.)

There ARE disadvantages to really small classes like mine, though. Because of our particular difficulties with autism, and the fact that toddler J is probably autistic as well, it's very difficult to connect with the community or do social things.

Are there ANY advantages to a larger class such as yours? I can't think of any, but maybe you can pop out a couple ideas that would help you get through. How long again until you get to retire? Just askin' LOL.

God bless ya! :]

9/28/2008 7:31 AM  
Blogger Urban School Teacher said...

Dennis- Anyone who disagrees with the suggestion that class size is not an important issue is, as you say, out of their mind. This sort of opinion can be formed only by someone who has never taught a room filled to bursting with other peoples' kids.

The number of students in a room has a direct link to several important teaching/learning factors, namely behaviour, individual and class attention, homework, relationships and of course academic success and failure. The list goes on and on. With very few exceptions, a smaller class is easier to teach, and better for the kids to learn in, than a larger class. Students in larger classes receive less one-to-one attention from the teacher. These ought to be statements of fact that are automatically accepted.

Like you, my small room has so many people and bits of furniture in it that simply moving around is a dangerous experience. I have thirty chairs and thirty desks, yet due to the seemingly ever-increasing class sizes I often have between 31-33 students at a time and it is therefore not unusual for me to have to send students out and about looking for extra chairs, only to have them sit in the "aisles" with books etc on their laps when they return. This is not ideal and anyone disagrees is a moron.

9/28/2008 9:16 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mrs. C., there is no doubt that "class size" is a definite advantage for homeschoolers. As much as I hate to see public schools (if they are good ones) lose those kids, I'm sure a reasonably intelligent parent can provide their child with good academics--at least until you get into some of the upper level sciences and maths. To answer your question, as an instructor, I can see absolutely no advantage in having class sizes in the thirties. As I said in the post, I used to regularly have numbers in the low twenties, and that worked well. Last year, because of a scheduling snaffu, I ended up with only 10 kids in my Economics class, and I thought that was too low.

Regarding retirement, in Minnesota we have a "rule of 90," and I reached that last December so I could have already retired. I've been thinking about doing a post on my future plans, and you've probably given me the incentive to actually do that. So stay tuned. And God bless you, too!

UST, did you just call Jay P. Greene a moron??? I'm shocked, but don't worry; I'll get over it.

9/28/2008 2:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to speak up and defend the "class size doesn't matter" studies by pointing out one way in which they can be correct.

Imagine, just for fun, that we have 2 good teachers teaching 60 kids total. The kid's test scores are okay, but not great.

Now, we get funding and drop the average class size to 15 kids! Heaven! But, since this is my example and I'm trying to illustrate a point, the two new teachers are going to suck. A lot.

The 30 kids (down from 60) who are with the two original teachers are going to do better than they had been doing. Why not? The teachers *are* good and can now spend twice as much time per student.

The 30 kids who are with the two new sucky teachers, however, are going to do worse than they did before. Again, why not? The new teachers are horrible.

This can *easily* average out so that there is no overall test score gain. Note that this *also* matches the personal experience of good teachers -- they can *SEE* that the kids that they have in the smaller classes are doing better. Because, of course, those kids are.

And this [trying not to be snooty] is why we have to do controlled tests and not just rely on common sense and anecdote. I'm not claiming that class size *MUST* work out as a wash on test scores. It might increase them (common sense), but it might just as well decrease them if the new teachers aren't as talented as the old ones. We just can't know until we go look at the whole system. And it is impossible to tell from introspection in a single classroom (or even school) because you can't see enough of the big picture from there.

Anecdotally (sp?), California passed a class-size reduction measure a number of years ago (and voted bond measures to pay for it). We didn't see any improvement in test scores. It *seems* that what happened was that all the schools now had more openings, the best teachers from the most horrible schools transferred to the better schools (can't blame them) and the result was that the schools with the worst performing students got a disproportionate number of the newer and/or worser teachers. I wouldn't be surprised (but I don't know) if the test score gap actually widened a few points because of this. But ... from a taxpayer viewpoint, we voted and spent the money and didn't get anything measurable in return. Not good :-(

Class size reduction can work out as a win, too, of course. If the replacement teachers are good enough (don't even have to be as good as the current teachers because they'll be teaching smaller classes) then we can see a win.

It can *ALSO* work the other way, though. One can imagine a system with *more* students for each teacher showing better results *IF* the skill of the average teacher goes up. Once again, without a widespread study, we just can't tell.

-Mark Roulo

9/28/2008 4:15 PM  
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9/29/2008 8:02 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Blake said...

I had something like 74 students in one classroom once. At-risk students. And with no warning. I looked up and in walked a huge group of students behind the registrar. I teach science, and there is no way I can conduct, safely, science labs with that many students. I had a small room and students were in the hallway, at my desk, on the floor, it was crazy. Two hours a day. I didn't even have a teacher's aide. That was a horrifying nightmare that I haven't gotten over yet! I had to revert to worksheets, worksheets, worksheets, which is not my style of teaching. That was one incident I wrote about.

9/29/2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, I don't like what you have to say, but you seem to have a point. I guess anything that should be good can be screwed up if it's handled poorly enough.

I do want to speak up for new, young teachers--at least in Minnesota. For the first time in my career, I have a student teacher, and she is excellent. She's been telling me about the requirements we have now for new teacher, and I'll have to say they are a lot tougher (and better) than when I got into teaching. I've really been impressed by the young teachers who have come into our district over the last several years. Most of the bad teachers I've seen haven't been new, young ones, but burned-out, old ones.

Elizabeth, how in the world did you survive?!?!

9/29/2008 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can think of another situation where large class sizes COULD be better than small ones.

I have a bright child in a school that is VEHEMENTLY in favor of heterogenous classrooms. In the lower grades K-3 she had no one like her in class. She was always alone academically...there was no one else in her classroom who read or did math at the same level she was.

The upper grades did not have classroom size there are thirty to thirty two kids in her classroom. AND she has someone else like her. She still doesn't get her share of teacher attention, but 1/20 of nothing is very much like 1/32 of nothing.

So, larger classes can be better for kids like her if the larger classes means that she gets to have a peer in the classroom.

10/02/2008 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Mark, I don't like what you have to say, but you seem to have a point. I guess anything that should be good can be screwed up if it's handled poorly enough."

Hmmm ... it isn't so much that small class sizes can be screwed up if handled poorly. It is more that optimizing one *part* of a large system won't always make the system as a *whole* better.

I will risk an analogy :-)

I program computers for a living. One of the interesting things about modern computers is that they have different 'levels' of memory (all of which is magically handled by the hardware). "Closest" to the CPU is something called the level-1 cache. Running code out the the L1 cache is much faster than running it out of the L2 cache (bigger, but slower to access) or the main memory (huge, but slowest).

Part of the skill of programming is keeping things small and in the cache, when possible.

It is often possible, though, to speed up a bit of the program by making that one bit a little larger [don't lets go into why right now]. If a programmer *only* measures the speed of the one routine he is focusing on, he will often make it a bit larger in exchange for having it run faster. Hooray! We win!

This is often the *wrong* decision, even if one is aiming for speed. The reason is that by making his one little bit of code a bit bigger (and faster!), his code may become large enough that it kicks some other code out of the L1 cache. *His* code runs faster, but the other code runs slower. The program as a whole might run faster *or* slower ... you have to just measure the whole thing.

I would be reluctant to claim that a good thing was screwed up by poor handling here. Which is my point.

The goal is for the *whole* program to run faster, not just one part of it. Unfortunately, the parts interact with each other, so you can't just optimize each piece in isolation and then put them together expecting to have optimized the whole thing. It doesn't work that way ... and not because people are screwing up, but because the pieces are coupled to each other.

I think education (and many other things in life) is like this, too. Smaller classes *require* more teachers who might be better or worse than the current ones. This isn't because anyone screwed up, this is just the way it is!

[NOTE: One way to get smaller class sizes *without* running into this problem would be to shoot enough kids from each class. I expect that the survivors would do better. I'm not advocating this, though]

-Mark Roulo

10/03/2008 3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do want to speak up for new, young teachers--at least in Minnesota."

I wasn't trying to bash new teachers :-) I was trying to illustrate a possibility. Assuming that the new teachers were better than the older teachers wouldn't have made my example work :-)

-Mark Roulo

10/03/2008 3:16 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, I really didn't take your comment as bashing anyone, and experience does matter. And as I said in my original response to you, you make a good point. Sometimes I hate it when you do that! ;)

10/04/2008 2:46 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Blake said...

Ref: Elizabeth, how did you survive? (on 9/29)
Well, that wasn't the worst thing I had to deal with. Shootings, murdered students, abusive principals, a riot. Life in the big city! That's what I wrote about. But, we all have our stories, I'm sure. I wrote not only about the obstacles I fought, but also about the joys of teaching. I'm retired, but I miss my kids!
BTW, I'm not involved in this in any way, but did you know a bunch of teachers are marching at D.C. on Oct. 18th? has info. I ran across it while surfing the internet one day.

10/07/2008 1:48 PM  
Anonymous Emma said...

I think that there are other factors that affect the importance of class size. (And this is from the perspective of a current high school junior in a very crowded school district.)

EDIT: Oh, and I'm sorry if this is a bit disjointed. I have difficulty writing in a logical and systematic fashion.

You mentioned the students themselves, and I think that's a very important factor. I currently have several classes with at least 30 students in them. Some of them do very well. The students are motivated, respectful, and generally bright.

However, other large classes are awful. Around half of the students in the room in my H. German 3 class are disruptive and unmotivated, and the other half largely don't mind, because they can typically learn what they need to on their own.

Now, using my German class as an example: Two years ago, in German 1, the class was extremely large. We didn't have enough desks in the room. Our teacher was what you might call 'pretty slack,' otherwise, things would have been very different. The entire class became very comfortable with each other, as most of us were freshman, and many of us knew others before high school.

The next year, that teacher left, and we had a new German teacher. He is dedicated to teaching, and he loves to work with students. The German 2 classes were split in half with about 12 students in each one. Because we all already knew each other, we felt comfortable being disruptive in class. We would gang up on the teacher on occasion. Now, bless his heart, this new teacher is probably one of the most positive, optimistic teachers I have ever met. While he still doesn't have us under control, we respect him. Even though many would say we don't act like it. We know when to stop pressing his buttons, but we would learn better if we never pressed them at all.

Now, on the issue of the teacher's role in how class size affects student performance:

A few years ago, I was in a chorus class with approximately 60 students in it. Most of the students were well-behaved and respectful most of the time. However, the teacher was a woman who nearly none of us respected. So many students walked all over her that no one felt the need to respect her. My small German 2 class was this way for most of the year, before our new German teacher learned to put his foot down and make us respect him.

The teacher doesn't need to be anal retentive. There's no need to growl at any small sign of misbehaviour. However, if a teacher habitually allows students to take advantage of him or her, no matter what the class size is, they will have difficulty ever gaining respect from any students. We talk to each other.

I've found that the most widely-respected teachers have found the balance between fun and doormat. They often use humour with their students, preferring to tease a little rather than get angry. Also, these teachers typically allow their students a lot more freedom in class than most. They might allow open discussion rather than silence or mandating raised hands. Many of them ask that students *not* ask to leave the room for the bathroom or water, and to just take the hallpass and go quietly instead.

The teacher can make a big difference, but, of course, in some cases, even the best teacher can't control a room of students who are set on not learning a single solitary thing.

The final thing I can think of that would affect the importance of class size is the subject of the class.

When you are teaching AP Statistics or something similar, a large class isn't so bad. You can expect that most of the students are motivated to learn, and already have a good grip on most of the basics. Individual attention isn't in high demand, so the students that do need it can get it.

However, if you are teaching a lower level class, we'll stay with math, then more students will probably need additional help.

I am in an AP English class currently with only 8 students. We are all respectful and motivated, but this class starts at 6:24am, and sometimes the teacher has a hard time getting us to focus or work.

So, even with a small class of dedicated, respectful students and a good teacher... well, you get my point.

Class size is just one of many, many factors. I guess it gets more focus because it is easier to measure than "percent of class that respects the teacher/cares about learning" or "respectability of the teacher" or anything similar...

Okay, once again, sorry this comment is so random. It's probably largely irrelevant anecdotes, too... oh well.

10/11/2008 10:20 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Emma, thanks for commenting. I really enjoyed getting your perspective, and there's nothing you said that I can disagree with. And don't worry about rambling. This is a blog, not an essay contest, so ramble all you want.

10/11/2008 4:57 PM  
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