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Posted at 4:54 PM ET, 02/28/2011

Forget smaller classes, part II

By Ezra Klein

A reader writes:

I am a retired teacher with 32 years teaching in Southern California (I have been both a department chair and mentor teacher). Here's what I found about pupil enrollment.

There is an optimum number with which a teacher may be effective. If you add 4 or 5 more students, then the teacher effectiveness diminishes. This has always been the argument for limiting class size -- not that smaller classes are better but that smaller classes are better than larger ones of given sizes.

Also there is another curious result. If you have 30 students with an average daily attendance of 27 or 28 and add 5 more students, you're likely to get an average daily attendance of 24 or 25! The students's absenteeism increases as they feel less and less involved in the classroom activities.

You can enroll more students in the good teachers' classroom, but you may not get more students attending.

Original post here.

By Ezra Klein  | February 28, 2011; 4:54 PM ET
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For the life of me, I can't imagine why anybody imagines the right gives a damn about education for the masses.

The rising plutocrats have the money to educate their own successors in the ruling class. For the rest, they want only minimally educated, slightly skilled docile masses to do the scut work for a few crumbs.

Posted by: S1VA | February 28, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

This argument makes no sense.

I don't doubt that there's a feedback effect where if you try to cram more kids into a classroom, attendance will suffer. But this teacher is arguing that the feedback effect is larger than the first order effect.

It's the same sort of sloppy reasoning that leads to pernicious ideas like "Tax cuts actually increase revenues!"

Posted by: dstr | February 28, 2011 5:26 PM | Report abuse

An important distinction to make is that in fact there is some evidence that reducing class size helps in grades K-3, but in fact it doesn't help for grades 4-12. Overall, reducing class size is an argument mainly for the benefit of teachers and not for students. For example: "A 2007 meta-data analysis of the rigorous research literature on the topic by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) for the Basic Education Finance Task Force found that class size reductions boost test scores in the primary grades but have little effect in middle and high school2."

Posted by: Poster3 | February 28, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

This person is saying that about 1/3 of the school misses class on any given day.

That seems...high.

Posted by: CarlosXL | February 28, 2011 6:00 PM | Report abuse

There is a bottom line here: 1) Public service unions corrupt the political process, in effect, bribing public servants to pay them too much, supervise them too little, and fire them only for horrible dereliction and crimes proven by the absurd standard that is proof beyond a reasonable doubt and by a trial of other workers - that is a horrific way to run an organization and in this case it's the school children who suffer permanent damage; 2) Even if it's something theoretically workable, public sector unions have abused their privileges and it won't stop until the incentive structure politically is altered. And you know it. In fact, the change in the discourse of late has been that Democrats admit this system is horrible on every level, but it is the only way they can raise campaign funds because they stopped being effective advocates for the poor and otherwise vulnerable on November 22, 1963. Klein and Krugman have basically conceded this. But think about this seriously ... you've actually ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of poor school children in pursuit of campaign financing. Is there any doubt that the same 300% increase in real dollars spent on education since 1960 would at least double the effectiveness of public schools under that old system in 1960? Further, think about it; I don't have the data but I would surmise even African-American children were better served by segregated schools in the south before public education unions. End this Democrats or you'll be ashamed of this as you are ashamed of slavery and Jim Crow.

Posted by: Commenting1 | February 28, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

I've taught classes with 60 - 100 students at the university level where they didn't need to be individually motivated.
The great teachers Gates is referring to are likely most effective because of their ability to engage and motivate individual students. Add 4 or 5 students to their classroom and that engagement will be diluted. A likely result is that they will become significantly less effective.
Here's the real deal, Bill Gates has a bunch of money and a bunch of influence not because he's an especially smart person with really good ideas. He got where he is because IBM foolishly let him keep the rights to MS-DOS.
His specialty is leading a company that produces software that everyone hates. Why in the world would anyone listen to him?

Posted by: jamessilver | February 28, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Average class sizes in the US are just over 15 students per teacher. Why is this teacher quoting figures almost twice that in their example?

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 28, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

Ah, SVA1, I think you are wrong, but regardless, the center does ... the political drums beat for thee.

Posted by: Commenting1 | February 28, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

"His specialty is leading a company that produces software that everyone hates. Why in the world would anyone listen to him?"

People hate Windows? Why do they keep buying it?

Posted by: justin84 | February 28, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Note the 15 per class is averaging in the librarian, guidance councilors and special ed classes with 5 kids with the regular ed classes of 20 to 30.
It seems to me that the real question here is for parents: What size class do you want your child taught in? And it seems like the actual parents should be able to answer that question not some billionaire who never attended a public school is his life and frankly needs to but out.

As a teacher in Florida where class size reigns (thanks parents!), my classes are 22 unless I have a co-teacher when they could theoretically be up to 44 but my administrators are too smart to do that so they are still around 25. I have noticed some things that I have been able to do with fewer students: I have time to grade more writing which is a particulary effective way for students to deepend their understanding of a concept and for me to see what they are thinking. My science classes can do more labs and we do them in smaller groups, ie pairs or 3s instead of 4 or 5 per group so kids get to work as individuals more in the hands on activities, again they get a better chance to "think it through" and finally I have more time to deal with personal issues with my students so they have a chance to focus on their learning instead of on other issues.
These are just common sense consequences of reasonable class sizes. Now the reform crowd in Fla which is most of our State legislature, many of whom are lobbyists for ed corps while they serve in govt, Hate the class size amendment passed by a parent group and have tried for years to get rid of it. What a waste of money, actually doing what parents and teachers think is right for the kids in their schools when we could be handing it over to ETS and Pearson (who screwed up our state tests again) and Kagan (sorry Ezra).
Of course that is exactly what they do in Finland where inordinate amounts of control is in the hands of highly trained teachers with graduate degrees and no billionaires have a say in how a classroom is run. i can't imagine why those test scores are so high!

Posted by: kmlisle | February 28, 2011 8:37 PM | Report abuse

What's the difference between smaller classes being better than larger ones and smaller classes being better?

@Justin bill gates quit as CEO in 2000. Look what's happened to the stock since. Nobody loved him, but you can't say he wasn't effective.

Posted by: MrDo64 | February 28, 2011 8:50 PM | Report abuse

"People hate Windows? Why do they keep buying it?"
DUH! Because it's the only option available in the big box stores! It's called a monopoly, Justin!

Posted by: jamessilver | February 28, 2011 8:59 PM | Report abuse

"Note the 15 per class is averaging in the librarian, guidance councilors and special ed classes with 5 kids with the regular ed classes of 20 to 30.
It seems to me that the real question here is for parents: What size class do you want your child taught in?"

Part of the source of massive excess growth in education is due to the massive excess of hiring people who don't actually provide any education.

They had librarians 50 years ago. In fact, pre-computer days, they probably had more use for them than today.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 28, 2011 9:46 PM | Report abuse

An alternative at the University level, at least, is internet courses. I designed the University of Arizona's online personal finance internet courses and have taught them since 2005. It is a way you can really leverage the best teachers.

However, our department doesn't proctor any exams in an internet course. And this is a problem with credibility among other things. I think this is probably common, and a big reason is cost and trouble (although that's actually pretty small).

Internet courses, however, can be a great way to leverage the best teachers, and massively, and globally, and for the poorest people in the world. But they have to be done well, and exams should be proctored (you can have a global network, utilizing universities and Stanley Kaplan, etc.). This is important so that the courses and the degree have the same credibility as the traditional.

Also, ideally, most college courses should still be traditional. The community and interpersonal, not just with the professor, but with other students, is very important for motivation, learning, and just human happiness.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 28, 2011 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Please. The politicians and the public don't want to hear that real small classes, where especially difficult students can get the attention they crave, are better for the children. It may work for costly private schools and in wealthy places like Scarsdale, but it costs too much. Better to do as Obama's Arne Duncan and "Waiting For Superman" say - champion [secretly] selective charter schools staffed with cheap young teachers.

Posted by: ixam | March 1, 2011 8:41 AM | Report abuse

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