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Posted at 2:34 PM ET, 03/ 1/2011

Forget smaller class sizes, part III

By Ezra Klein


Dana Goldstein takes a look at classroom sizes across advanced countries, and concludes that "that small class size is not clearly correlated with high achievement -- and neither is large class size." But she also reminds the wonks that high achievement -- as measured through test scores -- is not all this debate is about:

The problem is that American parents are concerned not only with their children's test scores, but also with their day to day experiences at school. Parents want their children to have meaningful personal relationships with educators -- the sorts of life-changing experiences many of us remember fondly when we think back on our favorite teachers, whether they helped us score higher on a chemistry exam or just got us through a difficult time at home.

By Ezra Klein  | March 1, 2011; 2:34 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Your comment is overly broad and not reflective of reality in many parts of this country. How small is small? Primary class sizes of 20-25 are reasonable and that is why the data clusters in that range. That's small enough. But how about when they get over 30 as many are in our area? Does your data show that it won't matter? The full inclusion of students with special needs places particular demands on teachers as class sizes grow, especially when there are behavioral issues. Would you be willing to exclude them in order to permit larger class sizes?

Primary class sizes are increasing, school days are being eliminated and the consensus is that primary education will improve if only teachers become accountable?

Posted by: andrewmargeson | March 1, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the increased mainstreaming of special education students into mainstream classes is driving the push for smaller class sizes. When you have more students that need individual attention, then the teaching methods that work fine with larger classes will no longer serve the needs of their students.

If the students are more homogeneous (and I mean homogeneous in terms of ability), then teaching methods can be more standardized and apply across larger groups simultaneously. The more heterogeneous the needs of the students, the smaller the classes need to be.

Posted by: constans | March 1, 2011 4:26 PM | Report abuse

"The full inclusion of students with special needs places particular demands on teachers as class sizes grow, especially when there are behavioral issues. Would you be willing to exclude them in order to permit larger class sizes?"

This is exactly right.

Ezra, you have posted three times on this topic in the last two days without once taking up the central fact that the question is not how many desks are in the classroom as much as the nature of the kids that occupy those desks.

Just one or two kids with issues like behaviorial or attention disorders, autism, or other significant challenges, will consume hugesly disproportionate amounts of a teacher's time and attention, and will cause distractions to the other children's progress. Likewise, the percentage of the students that are English language learners, and/or who come from severely disadvantaged home environments, all present challenges that are common in many districts, but more unusual in other more affluent and demographically homogeneous locations.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 1, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

As the husband of a high school teacher, I can say that from her perspective class size has an enormous impact on her ability to be an effective teacher, and on the requirement that she provide individualized attention to every student, too many of whom have IEPs. It also has an enormous impact on the number of hours outside of school she spends grading tests and research papers and work folders and progress reports and ....

Every teacher I know talks of the dramatic impact every student over 24 has on the classroom environment.

Posted by: wvng | March 1, 2011 5:05 PM | Report abuse

This question of "what parents want" is a really important point. Unless you have a homogeneous group of exceptionally well-adjusted students with above-average IQ's and no special needs (which doesn't really exist except in some independent schools where class size is below 20 to begin with), once you get past 30 students in a class there is not much you can do but sit them in rows and make them do worksheets. (It should be noted--this approach can certainly keep plenty of test scores high enough (since really, that kind of work is exactly like the tests)!)

BUT small groups, cooperative groups, differentiation, hands-on and project-based learning all require a much lower student-teacher ratio (and we're talking qualified teachers IN the classrooms, not just number of total students divided by number of total employees).

The latter approach is what parents want to see, and they will consider you to be a bad teacher if you do not provide all of the above experiences as often as possible for their children.

I would also assume that as a society we would rather reap the rewards of the creative problem-solvers the latter approach can create, rather than just info-bots who are lost if they don't see a blank to fill in.

Posted by: jhoedem1 | March 1, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

So it's just completely out of the question for the workers--i.e. the teachers--to want this for their benefit as long as it doesn't hurt the kids? (It doesn't.)

It's like teachers aren't even human beings any more, let along the exalted professionals they should be.

Posted by: sj660 | March 1, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

This post ignores the fact that the research conclusively indicates that class size does make a difference -- one of only a handful of education reforms that have proven to work to increase student achievement through rigorous evidence, according to the Institute of Education Sciences.

Check out our fact sheet on this issue;

Also my piece on the 7 myths of class size:

Posted by: leonie1 | March 1, 2011 11:43 PM | Report abuse

so many other good education bloggers with interesting things to say out there besides just dana, ezra --

kevin carey at ed sector
sherman dorn
mike antonucci
john thompson (a contributor)
uncle jay (your colleague)
etc. (my blog)

Posted by: alexanderrusso | March 1, 2011 11:54 PM | Report abuse

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