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Posted at 10:40 AM ET, 02/28/2011

Forget smaller classes -- what about bigger ones?

By Ezra Klein

emptyclassroom.JPG

Bill Gates isn't a fan of the conventional wisdom that smaller class sizes mean better education. "This belief has driven school budget increases for more than 50 years. U.S. schools have almost twice as many teachers per student as they did in 1960, yet achievement is roughly the same," he writes. So what's his solution? Bigger class sizes -- at least for the best teachers:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

Seems worth a try, at least.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Journal Times, Mark Hertzberg.

By Ezra Klein  | February 28, 2011; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Comments

What about using some of the savings to offer the lowest 5% of teachers a severance package to get rid of them.

Posted by: cummije5 | February 28, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Anecdotally (sic), my kids' successful high school tended to have close to 30 students per AP class, and closer to 18 students in standard / remedial classes. And at that level the AP classes still had better flow, said my kids...

Posted by: JkR- | February 28, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

How about we double the salary of teachers for about a decade and see if that attracts a higher quality?

Posted by: yellojkt | February 28, 2011 10:55 AM | Report abuse

As so often when it comes to education, this "solution" is simplistic.

We increasingly mainstream children who are challenged with conditions like autism, behavioral and attention disorders, etc. Just one or two difficult students will consume a great deal of a teacher's daily effort, and will slow the progress of the class as a whole. Discussing class size, without first addressing this problem, is pointless.

It is probably easier for the same highly skilled teacher to manage 25 students, none of whom have such issues, than it is to manage half that many when a single individual in the classroom brings major challenges.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Class size matters at the very top and bottom of the learning curve, but not much in the middle. I have told this before. I had 72, only boys, in my first grade class, Catholic school of course. The discipline was iron as you can imagine, but most went on to lead productive lives.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 11:01 AM | Report abuse

And if you have to pay teachers three times as much for twice the class size and add in more aides? But hey Bill Gates knew how to steal software ideas so he must know about education!

Posted by: endaround | February 28, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

"Anecdotally (sic), my kids' successful high school tended to have close to 30 students per AP class, and closer to 18 students in standard / remedial classes. And at that level the AP classes still had better flow, said my kids..."

of course, a larger class composed of engaged, COMPETITIVE, intellectually curious, attentive students, with a motivated teacher will flow better.
small classes with students who have special needs, and students who are unmotivated, or struggling with the material, create a much more challenging environment for a teacher.

unless i misunderstood the comment,i dont think that is a fair comparison, regarding the size of a class.

Posted by: jkaren | February 28, 2011 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Let me speak from experience as the husband of an eighth-grade English teacher and the father of a child with high-functioning autism.
Part of what my wife does is to teach her children to write clearly and with proper grammar. In order to do this, she spends countless hours outside of school not just grading essays, but marking and commenting extensively on student essays. This is a very time-intensive process. Bigger class sizes would mean less individual attention given to student work.
Second, I have seen the impact of larger class sizes due to budget cuts on my son this school year. He went from a class of 18 to a class of 28 (he is in a regular classroom). The result is more behavior and discipline issues, primarily because the teacher is stretched thinner.
There are definite sacrifices to making class sizes larger, especially for younger students.

Posted by: blaszk | February 28, 2011 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Patrick_M has it exactly right. Many students can thrive in a class of 30+ kids, no problem. Other students truly need 10-1 student-teacher ratios, or even 1-1 if they are going to make progress.

It is not difficult to stand in front of a group of 35 well behaved, already-academically successful students without learning disabilities or psychological problems and lecture at them. And they'll probably learn fine from that (if be a little bit bored at times).

Conversely, it is impossible to take a group of 25+ at-risk students with ADHD, ODD, autistic-spectrum disorders, and myriad other learning and/or emotional disabilities and give all of them the hands-on, differentiated instruction they need to succeed. This is what we currently ask of most teachers, and then are SHOCKED and OUTRAGED when they don't succeed.

To be clear, I am actually a proponent of full inclusion in all but the most extreme cases because I believe all kids deserve to learn together and that they can all benefit from each other--and because, I would assume, this is the example we want to set for society at large. But I also acknowledge that that same society will NEVER be willing to fund what it would take to make a model like that successful.

Posted by: jhoedem1 | February 28, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Instead of loading up our most effective teachers with additional students (thereby reducing their effectiveness), perhaps it makes more sense to create incentives for excellence by rewarding the best teachers with more manageable class sizes.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

If we could identify the top 25% of teachers as easily as this solution suggests, presumably many of the tricky ed. policy issues we have would be very easy to deal with.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | February 28, 2011 11:27 AM | Report abuse

jkaren - my point is measuring class size without context doesn't really tell you anything.

Posted by: JkR- | February 28, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"I had 72, only boys, in my first grade class, Catholic school of course. The discipline was iron as you can imagine, but most went on to lead productive lives."

I suspect most adults who endured abuse in their homes as children "went on to lead productive lives." That standard does not tell us that class size does not have an impact upon the learning experience.

A high school teacher once remarked to me that education tends to change more slowly than the rest of our institutions, in part because parents are reassured when they come to see their kids' school rooms and find that everything feels familiar and reminds them of their own experience in the school systems of a generation ago. The argument that 'that's the way it was for me (20 to 50 years earlier) and I turned out ok' is not a good mode of analysis for understanding and maximizing effectiveness for present and future challenges.

We all tend to think that way, but it is important to resist making individual personal experience (from a very different era) our primary basis for deciding what is best, or even acceptable, in the present day.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

ha ha ha-- Ezra, those college students in Wisconsin who think they are in Selma must think you are a right winger for putting out stuff like this... Are you trying to declare war on the middle class?

Posted by: cdosquared5 | February 28, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Patrick:

I wasn't recommending it as a model, only pointing out that there are larger factors involved than just size.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

A dozen commenters, a half dozen different ideas, most inane. Trouble is, government schools are looking for a one size fits all solution in a very diverse country. Additionally, the unions don't *really* care. There won't be incentive pay for the best, because the worst will scream, and the union caters to the lowest denominator.

Strangely, all the commenter's solutions and more would be tested every day in the laboratory of the free market, and all without busybodies and meddlers and looters slavering over the prospect of trying to wring the most out of other people's money.

Posted by: msoja | February 28, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Bill Gates? So we just send the students bug fixes and tell them to reboot when their life crashes?

Posted by: denim39 | February 28, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

msoja:

The unionized Wisconsin teacher's students make Wisconsin #3 ranked in SAT scores. Your hypothesis is seriously flawed and lacking in supporting data.

Posted by: denim39 | February 28, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"What about using some of the savings to offer the lowest 5% of teachers a severance package to get rid of them"


What absurdity! We know who the underperformers are and we have to pay them to get rid of them rather than just firing them.

And people wonder why we tolerate the unions...there is a reason we have such a surplus of teachers.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

denim39,

Yes. And there are private schools already. We have always had private education. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that private schools have innovated any magic solution for more effective instruction.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Here is my favorite link:

http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_064.asp

Liberal ideologues have doubled education spending and tripled teaching forces since the 1950s.

Not coincidentally, states/municipalities have been facing fiscal destruction for a decade.

It's amazing how a SIEU elected president can pass a $25 billion bailout to the teachers unions to preserve so called 'critical' teaching positions that this nation did not need in 2004.


We need to fire 500,000 teachers, quickly, to get our budgets back on track.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

"A dozen commenters, a half dozen different ideas, most inane. Trouble is, government schools are looking for a one size fits all solution in a very diverse country. Additionally, the unions don't *really* care. There won't be incentive pay for the best, because the worst will scream, and the union caters to the lowest denominator"

Of course they do not care. The union collects more dues from 3.3 million teachers than they do from 2.5 million teachers.


This is easily displayed by the massive growth in the boondoogle known as special education. We did not need such grotesque spending in special education in the 1960s.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Increasing class sizes cause problems for teachers, but also the infrastructure may not be designed for the numbers either. My daughter was in an older school designed for class sizes smaller than 20, yet her class had 28 students, so more desks had to be stuffed in and more supplies, etc. Plus, there had to be extra aids for some of the kids with special needs. When visiting it was really ridiculous how crammed in the kids were. Some of them couldn't be positioned to actually face the front of the classroom. Of course the school district denied there were actually 28 kids in the room, because state regulations wouldn't let them have more than 23 I think it was in that size room. Despite my lack of 28 fingers my schooling was good enough so I could count the actual number, which they continued to deny.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | February 28, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Does someone have a good link to information about how we handled special education in the 1960's? I don't want to assert things that are untrue, but I am assuming we did not need "grotesque" spending in special ed in the 60's because we did not actually bother to educate students with special needs? Is this an approach you are suggesting we return to?

Posted by: jhoedem1 | February 28, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

The easiest statistical comparison in the US is the link between out of wedlock birth rates and educational achievement.

Not at all suprisingly, you find MS. DC, LA, NM at the top or bottom of both rankins, depending on how you look at things. DC is the leader in the clubhouse as having the highest OOW birthrate, and the worst public schools.

If you were a wonk, you could break down the tables even more to specific school districts but there would be no point.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Since Gates lacks education credentials to challenge "conventional wisdom" in education, he will need a more compelling reason to be convincing in his recommendation to actually enlarge class sizes than simply the willingness of certain teachers to take on more students. As an educator, I see everyday how important student-to-teacher ratio is in providing children with the attention they need to succeed.

Secondly, the unless the metric used to determine which teachers are "top" is not riddled with problems (such as the now en vogue "value added" method), then the extra pay won't reliably incentivize better teaching. Besides, after the fact carrot & stick methods of improving quality are misguided anyway: why not actually TRAIN TEACHERS MORE?

Committing more resources to this up front by requiring teachers to graduate with masters degrees (and pay them accordingly) is what has helped propel Finland to the #1 in education worldwide. That, along with smaller class size, and a minimal reliance on standardization (as this distracts from real learning, though that is exactly what the unreliable "value-added" metric is based on...).

http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/82329/education-reform-Finland-US?page=0,0

Posted by: Trogdorprof | February 28, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

"Does someone have a good link to information about how we handled special education in the 1960's? I don't want to assert things that are untrue, but I am assuming we did not need "grotesque" spending in special ed in the 60's because we did not actually bother to educate students with special needs? Is this an approach you are suggesting we return to?"

jhoedem1,

I don't have a link, but I can offer an anecdote.

Like johnmarshall5446, I attended a Catholic elementary school. I went through grades 1 through 8 with the same set of about 40 kids, in the same room all day. There was a boy named Jaimie who was constantly in trouble for incidents that ranged from disruptive to aggressive, at times violent. Although we had kids from poor families in the class, he was not one of them.

In the school, his poor behavior and participation was classified as moral misconduct, and by the 4th grade the school expelled him. I know that later he evolved into a juvenile criminal (dealing drugs and committing thefts), and I very much doubt that he went on to lead a "productive" life as an adult. He inevitably fulfilled the expectations created by the way he was classified from his very earliest experiences within the system.

In reflection, when I recall his behavior as a small child, so much of it now seems to me like hyper-activity and/or an attention disorder for which there are now often-successful strategies to contain and manage (provided there are adequate resources at hand).

Like you, I suspect that in the 1960's we treated many special needs kids as "incorrigible" (the way my school treated Jaimie), and that made the performance of the remaining kids better than would otherwise be the case if we kept the difficult kids mainstreamed without having the knowledge and available resources to meet their personal challenges.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

"Does someone have a good link to information about how we handled special education in the 1960's? I don't want to assert things that are untrue, but I am assuming we did not need "grotesque" spending in special ed in the 60's because we did not actually bother to educate students with special needs? Is this an approach you are suggesting we return to?"


They didn't educate all of them, no. For the most part, this was necessary in keeping costs reasonable and budgets in balance.


The first thing that should go in a fiscal crisis is spending that is not useful. Unfortunately that requires overturning a few very poorly thought out court decisions by activist judges.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"The unionized Wisconsin teacher's students make Wisconsin #3 ranked in SAT scores. Your hypothesis is seriously flawed and lacking in supporting data."

That's a relative measure of performance - the third tallest midget is not a tall person in general.

Let's look at some additional data.

In Wisconsin, about 22% of 8th grade students are below basic, and thus more or less illiterate. Another 44% can read at "basic" levels (to meet this standard, an 8th grade student has to score roughly as well as a proficient 4th grade student). Only 34% of Wisconsin 8th grade students are proficient or higher. A mere 2% are considered advanced.

The average score for 8th grade students in Wisconsin is 266, which compares to 260 for Texas (and one might expect Texas to have more educational challenges given a large immigrant population).

What does it take to be proficient?

"Eighth-grade students performing at
the Proficient level should be able to
provide relevant information and
summarize main ideas and themes.
They should be able to make and
support inferences about a text, connect
parts of a text, and analyze text
features. Students performing at this
level should also be able to fully substantiate
judgments about content and
presentation of content."

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2009/2010458.pdf

Posted by: justin84 | February 28, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"Like you, I suspect that in the 1960's we treated many special needs kids as "incorrigible" (the way my school treated Jaimie), and that made the performance of the remaining kids better than would otherwise be the case if we kept the difficult kids mainstreamed without having the knowledge and available resources to meet their personal challenges."


US public schools were the best in the world back then when they didn't cater to the lowest common denominator, and didn't allow special interests to demand hundreds of billions of dollars to cater to that lowest common denominator.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Patrick:

You raise an interesting point which I will call "lifeboat ethics". Isn't it better for the class/society as a whole to marginalize some kids rather than to allow them to disrupt the educational system for the group as a whole?

Coming from a family of teachers, though not being one myself, I have been told repeatedly that "mainstreaming" some children devotes a large amount of proportional time to those students and less to the class as a whole. In my one relative's classroom, they actually have teacher's aides called a "wrap-around".

I know that many will not believe me, so I have included part of a want ad for this position, without naming the institution:


"Category: Direct Care
Title: Wrap Around Worker
Program: Residential

Basic Function:
Reports directly to the designated supervisor. Assists residents in crisis. Responds to calls from milieu or school staff and assists in de-escalation of potential crisis situations. Works effectively with milieu and school staff, as well as SASS (Screening and Support Services) and the Police Department. Effectively implements verbal de-escalation and physical intervention. Physical intervention requires the ability to kneel and return to standing without assistance. Utilizes effective verbal and written communication, as well as computer skills. Maintains flexibility to adjust work schedule, including some weekend hours according to the needs of the program."

While this program is residential, you will also find them in public schools in the poor areas. Their job is to maintain a level of control over young students who are disruptive, but who cannot be moved into specialized education, usually because the district won't pay for the additional cost unless challenged by the parent.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

"The first thing that should go in a fiscal crisis is spending that is not useful. Unfortunately that requires overturning a few very poorly thought out court decisions by activist judges."

"US public schools were the best in the world back then when they didn't cater to the lowest common denominator, and didn't allow special interests to demand hundreds of billions of dollars to cater to that lowest common denominator."

Okay, this is getting really fascinating. Now that it is clear where each of us stands on who deserves to receive an education in our country, what is the free market solution for children with disabilities or problems of any type that would classify them as "lowest common denominator"?

I am actually really interested in seeing a whole scenario laid out--I am not trying to be snarky.

Posted by: jhoedem1 | February 28, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

"Isn't it better for the class/society as a whole to marginalize some kids rather than to allow them to disrupt the educational system for the group as a whole?"

I highly doubt it. Putting aside the moral/ethical question of not rescuing that young life, I suspect that the lifetime cost to the system in having the Jaimies of this world become so mal-adapted as to turn to crime inevitably has a higher price tag than it is to apply the right level of early corrective intervention.

"While this program is residential, you will also find them in public schools in the poor areas. Their job is to maintain a level of control over young students who are disruptive, but who cannot be moved into specialized education, usually because the district won't pay for the additional cost unless challenged by the parent."

Many districts can't pay for additional resources, including the sort of ancillary residential band-aid staff you describe, even when challenged by parents demanding help. And for the youngest kids, many low income parents are unsophisticated and in "denial" about the nature of the issue. Teachers I know who point the parents of young students toward possible outside resources are often met with a passive or even resentful response by parents who prefer to think of their kids as merely "high energy."

I believe that the most cost-effective strategy for society is to properly fund special needs resources within the schools in order to manage, contain, and reverse the problems at as young an age as possible. It creates a better learning environment for all the other kids, it makes more sense not to ask teachers who do not have the specialized knowledge and training to deal with such issues to find their own way, and over time it is more cost-effective for us all than kicking them out of the "life-boat."

Unlike an actual life boat, these children don't just disappear when kicked out, they stay in the community and continue to put pressure on public resources.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

"The unionized Wisconsin teacher's students make Wisconsin #3 ranked in SAT scores. Your hypothesis is seriously flawed and lacking in supporting data."

By the way, the SAT rankings are absolute garbage. The data comes from a mere 3,002 test-takers, compared with 1,547,990 nationally. Considering that Wisconsin's population is roughly 1.8% of America's total, a comparable sample size would have been 27,864. It should be fairly obvious which direction low sample size bias goes in this case, but to confirm, check out the average GPAs for each subject for both groups. On top of that, Wisconsin's sample is 87% White or Asian, as opposed to 65% nationally - that would also tend to bias the results in favor of Wisconsin, as minorities typically have lower SAT scores. Only 22% of Wisconsin's sample is from students where household income is less than $60,000, opposed to 42% nationally. There is all sorts of statistical bias in Wisconsin's favor.

http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/WI_10_03_03_01.pdf

http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/2010-total-group-profile-report-cbs.pdf

Posted by: justin84 | February 28, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

We increasingly mainstream children who are challenged with conditions like autism, behavioral and attention disorders, etc. Just one or two difficult students will consume a great deal of a teacher's daily effort, and will slow the progress of the class as a whole. Discussing class size, without first addressing this problem, is pointless.


Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse


While you're right in this part of the problem is parents push for their children to be declassified so they can be mainstreamed sometimes before they're ready. They look at it as a blotch on their child's record for some reason instead of getting them the help they need.


I'm all for this by the way but it doesn't take away the fact that there are bad teachers out there and they must be let go. Watching Morning Joe this morning I was disgusted by a part of the conversation with Randi Weingarten who kept deflecting the true issues (even as she previously made talk of ending tenure a real issue)

its as if she can't bring herself to say that there are bad teachers out there just as there are bad doctors, engineers, you name the field there are poor performers there. To not admit that there are bad teachers out there continues the status quo in Education that is failing our kids.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 28, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"I highly doubt it. Putting aside the moral/ethical question of not rescuing that young life, I suspect that the lifetime cost to the system in having the Jaimies of this world become so mal-adapted as to turn to crime inevitably has a higher price tag than it is to apply the right level of early corrective intervention."

Such intervention hasn't been broadly successful. The Jaimies of the world have been turning to crime anyway despite massive influxes of suburban money for 30 years. The massive excess of money funneled into special education hasn't resulted in any measurable reduction in criminal activity.


What we need are better pharmaceuticals and other usage of technology in dealing with these rascals. Tecnology has proven to be a much cheaper solution than union labor.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

The comments ignore two versions of "the law of diminishing returns." If you add more students to a class, at some point the teacher will become less effective. Students will become bored or interact with each other rather than the teacher.

Also there is this dynamic: If you have a class of 30 students, you may get an average daily attendance of 27 or 28. But if you increase the class enrollment to 35 students you may get an ADA of 24 students, especially in high school. Believe me it happens. The students vote with their feet.

Posted by: genemerica | February 28, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"While you're right in this part of the problem is parents push for their children to be declassified so they can be mainstreamed sometimes before they're ready. They look at it as a blotch on their child's record for some reason instead of getting them the help they need."

visionbrkr,

You missed my point.

I don't know how the system works in New Jersey where you live, but where I live students with these issues are mainstreamed, whether parents want that or not, simply because the school districts lack the funds to provide any additional resources.

The typical experience of an elementary school teacher is that every year she or he will end up with at least one kid whose special needs are not being met, and for whom no additional specialized assistance is available on the school staff.

Add to this challenge a high proportion of kids who are not English speakers, coupled with a decline in funding for ELL programs, and the result is a mixture that tends to work against progressing every child at the rate of their capability, and thereby skewing the public perception of teacher effectiveness.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 2:53 PM | Report abuse

@Patrick,

yes I missed your point but mainly because here in NJ it works differently. Since there is such a high incidence of autism and similar spectrum related disorders the systems are set up to have seperate schools for them. For example my district has a preschool disabled program for these students where they can eventually mainstream them but it doesn't seem (at least to me) to be forced from the financial side but more from the parent side. My daughter was originally (and incorrectly I might add) diagnosed as autistic. She had speech delay (mainly because our pediatrician never told us to get tubes in her ears and she wasn't a fussy baby so she couldn't hear for the first 2 years of her life.


That being said correct criteria that factors these things in need to be used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. It can't be used as a crutch to keep poor teachers because "the bad kid" is in their class.

Its not wrong to say that there are bad teachers out there just as in any profession.


Also in NJ we have "shadows" for special needs kids that are additional help in the classroom specifically for those children but also can help other kids out when and if needed so sometimes its a resource gain for the other students.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 28, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add further comment on my "law of diminishing returns" comment above in which I stated that when more students are added to a class, the Average Daily Attendance (ADA) for that class often goes down.
Consider: most schools are paid for ADA. The higher the ADA, the more a school gets. If you enroll more students into a class but lower the ADA for that class, the school gets fewer dollars for that class. Since school districts are governed by the Dollars generated by a class, it seems it would behoove them to find the ratio that pays the highest ADA. Ironically, that ratio may be near the optimum ratio for success.

Posted by: genemerica | February 28, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The best ranked school system in the world is in Finland. And they have achieved this with moderate spending per pupil.

( http://www.oecd.org/document/60/0,3343,en_2649_201185_39700732_1_1_1_1,00.html )

How does Finland approach education differently?

1. The fundamental philosophy is equity in education for every student, a concept that was embedded in the first educational laws of Finland during the 19th century and which has guided their educational mission ever since.

2. The population of Finland holds the teaching profession in the highest regard; there is greater esteem for teachers than for doctors and lawyers. Places in schools of education are the most coveted, 90% of applicants fail to make the cut.

3. The emphasis within schools is the quality rather than the quantity of classroom hours. Teachers are allowed more time for preparation, student assessment, and individualized attention. As a result (and somewhat counter-intuitively) students in Finland complete their studies with over two years less total instructional hours than American students, and yet Finland significantly outperform us.

Read more:

http://bertmaes.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/why-is-education-in-finland-that-good-10-reform-principles-behind-the-success/

The countries that achieve success are not doing so by de-funding or privatizing public education, relying on standardized testing as the magic yardstick for quality, or by throwing special needs kids out of the boat and turning back the clock to a less enlightened era.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

patrick:

You are more optimistic than I that all disorders can be helped and that there is a magic bullet available for all problem students if only the funds are extended.

This is the same thinking that has brought us to the edge of the precipice in Medicare and Medicaid, namely that all should have the treatment that they want/need, no matter how expensive, and no matter how mixed the overall results.

It is a financially unsustainable system.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

patrick:

On what objective basis could the Finnish school system be rated the best in the world?

Finland is not a world leader in anything regarding science, technology, banking, manufacturing, etc. No one begs to get into a Finnish university because it is world reknowned.

This is the danger of using only statistics to "rank" everything. It's like the ridiculous life expectancy tables that have the US down somewhere at number 50. That is until you see that the "nations" in front of us are places like, Wallis and Fatuna, Malta, and the Faroe Islands. (seriously) LOL

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall5446,

You misunderstand my position. I don't claim that "every" child can be brought up to speed, or that is a "magic bullet" for anything. I have argued instead that having at least a baseline availability of competent specialized attention for students with special needs will have positive results for many (although not all) of those students, it will help ensure that their presence in the mainstream will not impede the education of students without special needs, and that we need to bear in mind the costs of not straightening out the portion of the problems that we can successfully correct or at least mitigate.

Our trajectory is in the opposite direction, but critics of the overall performance of our educational system need to bear in mind that "you get what you pay for," and if we just throw students with special needs under the bus we are just sweeping a continuing problem under the rug, substituting one failure to mask another rather than striving for better success.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Patrick:

When it comes to education, we just disagree. The out of wedlock birthrate determines the success of a particular school district no matter how much money is spent, nor how dedicated the teachers are.

The statistics are simply undeniable.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I am continually amazed at the stupidity of smart people when speaking about education.

Paperwork increases exponentially with increased class size and no one wants to do that. So do classroom management headaches. So what on Earth makes you or Bill Gates think that anyone would bite at this deal? I wouldn't. It isn't worth it, for the pittance of extra money you'd be able to offer. They may say that in Gates' survey, but they're thinking an increase from 20 to 25 or 30, not to 60 or 70.

The available research (yes, DATA, not opinions - Robinson, 1990; Slavin 1989 and the statewide tests in Indiana (Project Prime Time) and Tennessee (Project Star)) shows small to medium class size effects generally coupled with other interventions; that small class sizes have the largest effect in early primary grades and among the economically disadvantaged at all grades.

Though the effect on student performance is confounded by other variables, one thing that does stand out is better classroom behavior, longer student time on task, and increased teacher satisfaction. Since teachers have a high burnout rate, that seems like it might be a good thing.

Or you and Gates could drive the best teachers from the profession by turning them into worn-out field hands.

Six of one, half dozen of the other, right?

Posted by: pj_camp | February 28, 2011 4:05 PM | Report abuse

@pjcamp,

great points.

So why when class sizes have decreased have salaries and benefits gone up substantially?

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 28, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

"The comments ignore two versions of "the law of diminishing returns." If you add more students to a class, at some point the teacher will become less effective. Students will become bored or interact with each other rather than the teacher"

This is obviously disproven by the fact that US education was much better in the 1960s with much larger classrooms and much less teachers/school amenities.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

"When it comes to education, we just disagree. The out of wedlock birthrate determines the success of a particular school district no matter how much money is spent, nor how dedicated the teachers are."

I am not sure our disagreement is all that broad, john.

We both argue that under-performing teachers are not the sole factor that explains under-performing schools.

You argue that "out-of-wedlock' is the single biggest factor. I would argue that affluent and reasonably socio-economically homogenous suburban populations have student populations that are better supported at home for classroom culture, and those districts have better resources to deal with the smaller number of kids with special challenges that are found in their student population.

The schools that "under-perform" have more low-income families (which will also show up as more "out-of-wedlock" single mothers), ELL kids, and more special needs kids whose families do not have the resources to obtain counseling and therapy, and for which their schools are under-resourced to manage well.

As for Finland, if you look at the PISA survey, it takes many factors into account. Your statement that we should judge the success of an educational system based upon that country's leadership in certain areas seems to indicate that you think that because we still have the world's biggest economy that means that our schools must necessarily be the world's best.

I would argue instead that the steady recent advances in Finland's educational system which drove it to the top will pay future dividends in Finland's economy and its society at large, and that the obstacles to our own educational excellence will contribute over time to a decline in our economic vitality (as well as to the quality of our civic and cultural life as a nation).

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 4:34 PM | Report abuse

"This is obviously disproven by the fact that US education was much better in the 1960s with much larger classrooms and much less teachers/school amenities."

The world for which our schools prepare our students is significantly different today than in the 1960's.

US education was "much better" fifty years ago? Depends on how you look at it. My kids mastered a much more advanced and challenging curriculum working their way up through K-12 at every level than I experienced at the same age. Mathematics, science, and physics that were not routine until college are now common at the high school level, and we have an increasing emphasis on AP level work which qualifies high performing students for university credits upon admission.

If by "school amenities," one means facilities and equipment, I would beg to differ. The schools my kids attended were far older and less well-kept than the school grounds of my own youth, and often the schools today put up flimsy (and chilly) "portable" classrooms, rather than build new additions, at times of growing enrollment.

If "amenities" in classrooms include computer technology and other technology that did not exist if the 1960's, then it is a good thing we buy the right tools with which to educate kids for life in this century.

We had fewer highway deaths when we got from point A to point B in a horse and buggy, but that does not mean that anyone would argue that our way forward is for all of us to live like the Amish, in an increasingly technological and competitive world. The society into which our students graduate, and the challenges to our educational system, are quite different now than they were half a century ago.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I recall as a child that we had 40-45 kids per classroom in elementary school. That worked fine. Class size does not hurt teaching when discipline is maintained and parents are engaged in student learning.

I attended a private Catholic school taught by nuns. There was no horsing around really and homework was done on time or else.

Can we transplant that model of parenting and discipline to all schools generally? No. My mother was a teacher in a program for Milwaukee inner city schools in Wisconsin. Children could not be detained after school. It was not safe. There were often no adults at home in the evenings for whatever reason. No one helped these children read or read to them at night. No one helped them with spelling or arithmetic, and so on. The amount of one on one attention needed from teachers was very high to even start to compensate.

I realize there were some very good parents in the midst of all that chaos, but far too few. Now run the spectrum from my experience in a affluent, rigorous family help scenario all the way to the extreme my mother worked at helping? Class size matters much more when the children need more attention. Much of what these children needed was nothing more than nurturing adult attention.

We have displaced enormous social responsibility onto schools and teachers and mocked that they struggle to teach effectively.

This is shameful.

Posted by: sailor0245 | February 28, 2011 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Its been a while since I read it, but I recall a paper that proposed the following theory:

50 years ago women had few professional options. Out of the few, being a teacher was one of the better options (in terms of prestige, money, etc), and thus, teaching drew a slew of interest from talented, educated, career-driven women. These days, women have much more options (doctors, lawyers, senators, etc) and as such, the pool of labor from which teachers are drawn does not contain as many "high ability" applicants. I forget what data was used (SAT? IQ?), but I believe there was some attempt at showing empirical support of their theory which showed that by whatever proxy for "ability" they used, the average ability now was indeed lower than what it was in decades past.

In short, the world is full of awesome and brilliant women. Back when society limited their professional options, the few options that were available were overflowing with such awesome and brilliant women (such as teaching). Now that they have more options, many of those awesome and brilliant women have gone into other fields, leaving less in the pool that becomes teachers where instead of teaching our children, they attempt to cure cancer and do other worthwhile things.

I'm not saying this means women shouldn't do other jobs (they should!) and I'm not saying there aren't great teacher now (there are!), but I often catch myself thinking about that paper and wondering how the expansion of women in the workplace, while beneficial for women in general, may have had a detrimental effect on the quality of labor for a few specific fields (like teaching).

And yes, I know there are male teachers, but they haven't undergone nearly as much of a radical change in terms of their role in the workplace, so one can think of the above story happening when we "hold the quality of male teachers constant".

Posted by: Nylund154 | February 28, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse

patrick:

Ok on the OOW. I don't want to get into the why's, that a column too far! I only use it as a near exact predictor of what happens in the classroom.

As far as Finland goes, well what can I say. There is really no basis for comparison between an ethnicallly homogenous country where all speak Finnish and only 5% of the population are considered the minority Sami people, and the US.

Presumably the lowest rung of their education is above ours, but there is simply no way you can compare the upper levels of Finnish education to ours.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse

"There is really no basis for comparison between an ethnicallly homogenous country where all speak Finnish and only 5% of the population are considered the minority Sami people, and the US."

I have never said that successfully educating our population does not present more challenges than educating the less diverse population of Finland. In fact I have argued exactly the opposite, that our unequal distributions of populations with more difficult home lives and special needs (without providing adequate additional resources to helpful offset those extra challenges) are the most telling factor in answering the question of what the most significant obstacles to excellence really are.

However, the fact that Finland has the advantage of greater "homogeneity" in their school population does not mean that an analysis of the Finland model is not a beneficial exercise. The fact that the social status of a teacher in Finland is high, the fact that they view an equally high quality educational experience for every student as their over-arching goal, the fact that their teachers are allowed a greater portion of their time to design, implement and assess the curriculum that they deliver (and thereby achieve better achievement with fewer instructional hours) --- all of these priorities point to areas of reform that just might help every student succeed, even in our more economically and socially diverse society.

The nation of Finland has not made such impressive improvements in the quality of their education by demonizing teachers, privatizing all education, or by simply expelling students with special needs.

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

I believe in data-driven policy. And I think there are good studies showing that the most important factor in student success that can be controlled by the school is the quality of the person running the classroom. Class size studies haven't shown much of an impact for post-elementary education. So if you have to choose, teacher quality is where the money should go.

But one factor that these studies ignore is the effect of class size not on student success but on teacher recruitment and retention. Even if smaller classes don't have much of an impact on students, they could have a great impact on attracting and retaining good teachers. I can tell you from personal experience that it's a lot more satisfying teaching a class of 17 than a class of 35. So I'd like to see a study on that question.

Posted by: dasimon | February 28, 2011 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Patrick:

Enjoyed the discussion as always.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 28, 2011 7:23 PM | Report abuse

If government schooling is so great, why is Bill Gates trying to meddle in it? Why is Intel?

//cite
"You see us investing in good times and in bad times when other people don't," says Intel CEO Paul Otellini, who fears the U.S. is losing its competitive edge to Asia. He blames high corporate taxes and an education system that is falling behind the rest of the world in math and science.

"This is very scary, and you take this out over another 10, 20 years and I think that you won't have the ability to find the workers you need for the jobs that American companies or foreign companies located here are going to need," Otellini says.

So Intel is investing $100 million a year in K-12 education, and another $100 million in collaborative University research centers, looking at the next generation of computing.
//end cite

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41833259/

"The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/07/us-falls-in-world-education-rankings_n_793185.html

The U.S. government school monopoly is a disgrace.

Posted by: msoja | February 28, 2011 7:40 PM | Report abuse

"If by "school amenities," one means facilities and equipment, I would beg to differ. The schools my kids attended were far older and less well-kept than the school grounds of my own youth, and often the schools today put up flimsy (and chilly) "portable" classrooms, rather than build new additions, at times of growing enrollment."


I guess you haven't been paying attention to the latest figures on school construction.


http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_180.asp


Capital outlays have increased from $19 billion in 1990 to $63 billion in 2007. Buying these palace $100+ million schools like the one next door to me is not cheap.

"US education was "much better" fifty years ago? Depends on how you look at it. My kids mastered a much more advanced and challenging curriculum working their way up through K-12 at every level than I experienced at the same age. Mathematics, science, and physics that were not routine until college are now common at the high school level, and we have an increasing emphasis on AP level work which qualifies high performing students for university credits upon admission."

I look at it in terms of outcomes, such as graduation rates and the resulting employment growth, both of which were much higher in the 60s.


"We had fewer highway deaths when we got from point A to point B in a horse and buggy, but that does not mean that anyone would argue that our way forward is for all of us to live like the Amish, in an increasingly technological and competitive world. "

Of course not. Highway transportation has proven to be demonstrably superior to the horse and buggy, as proven by the fact that people willingly purchase cars rather than horses and buggies.


"he society into which our students graduate, and the challenges to our educational system, are quite different now than they were half a century ago."

Liberals like to say that. Unfortunately, despite the massive doubling of the burden the government education industry complex places on the public, the system fails to meet its challenges. Money should not be funneled into the union dominated government education industry without reform.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 9:41 PM | Report abuse

"Also in NJ we have "shadows" for special needs kids that are additional help in the classroom specifically for those children but also can help other kids out when and if needed so sometimes its a resource gain for the other students"


NJ is a particular case study in abusive spending.

It's amazing how the liberals cry for compassion for unemployment benefits because people need the money. Why?

Because in 2008-2009 when north-central NJ was getting hammered hard by job losses in finance, the union lords were ramming through massive property tax increases and 'forgetting' to reappraise homes that were rapidly losing equity.

Increasing taxes on the unemployed! How compassionate!

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 9:52 PM | Report abuse

krazen: "Money should not be funneled into the union dominated government education industry without reform."

Too bad that states with unionized teachers seem to outperform those that are not unionized. That's not to say that reforms wouldn't help, but unions aren't necessarily the major problem. (It's also true that other nations with unionized teachers have school systems that outperform ours.)

But never let the facts get in the way of a good argument!

Posted by: dasimon | March 1, 2011 2:05 AM | Report abuse

"Too bad that states with unionized teachers seem to outperform those that are not unionized. "

Mere coincidence. Those states happen to have less minorities and out of wedlock births.

States with lots of whites like Iowa have the highest graduation rates even with much less education spending.

Posted by: krazen1211 | March 1, 2011 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Marvelous outcomes will be realized once both social promotion and self-esteemed based instruction are abandoned.

Posted by: dplainview | March 1, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

"States with lots of whites like Iowa have the highest graduation rates even with much less education spending."

Is it possible that the writer of this sentence does not understand what an offensive statement this is?

Seems unlikely.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 1, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

The data doesn't support Gates' fundamental assertion about achievement:

http://scienceblogs.com/mikethemadbiologist/2011/03/if_youre_going_to_glorify_educ.php

and the NAEP data:
http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

Posted by: dctidb | March 2, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

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