Sunday, July 4, 2010

A bone to pick...

At the last Common Council meeting Phil Sherwood, during his 10 minute monologue, said one thing that made me physically laugh out loud. I tried to control myself, but I couldn't. It was a terrible breech of decorum, but in the face of such an ignorant statement I was unable to contain my laughter of shock and disgust. What had me simultaneously amused and upset? It was when Phil Sherwood said "and we all know that smaller class sizes improve student performance."

This bit of 'common wisdom' is one that people like to throw around constantly. It is assumed by a great deal of teacher and an even greater number of administrators and even more members of the public that the answer is simply to cut class sizes and our students will succeed. Teacher unions, for one, love this notion. The smaller you require class sizes to be the greater numbers of teachers you need. Administrators and politicians love this notions because it always gives them an easy educational scapegoat. In their minds if they don't have the money or  facilities to have smaller class sizes then they can be absolved of all blame.

There is one unfortunate problem with these assertions, and that is they are wrong. Much of the media buzz promoting strong connections between class size and student performance came out of the Project STAR report which was the findings of an experiment in Tennessee. There were a few problems with Project STAR. First, the students were assigned randomly, but no pre-instruction data was collected. That means that there is no way to tell if any student actually improved more in a smaller class size than they did in a larger class size. Second, the results of ProjectSTAR only showed modest gains among K-1 students. Other students showed no significant gains in performance. Third, the study is almost 30 years old and many of their conclusions have been repeatedly contradicted by further more modern research. Finally, the benefit of smaller class sizes only occurred when classes were reduced from 22-25 to fewer than 17 students in a classroom.

Since Project STAR several other research studies have been performed and published. Some show a modest gain in student performance in primary schools, some show no gains at all, some show that the gains are not persistent, other show that the gains are lifelong. In short, there is no conclusive evidence that classroom size reductions will have any measurable affect on student performance.

Cost vs. Reward
When we begin to look at making policy we have to look at the best way to spend our tax dollars. What Phil Sherwood is advocating for is putting all of our money into teacher jobs when it could be much better spent. Allow me to make a brief example. In order to reduce 4 classrooms of 25 students to 5 classrooms of 20 students you need the following: an extra teacher, a physical space, certain supplies such as a teacher desk, classroom library, big books, blackboard or SMART board, overhead projector, electricity and heating for that new room, carpets, bookshelves, etc. A conservative estimate would be that if you assumed a starting teacher that room would cost you $50-60k.

What could we do with $50-60k to better serve our students? One answer, informed by research, is professional development. Numerous studies have now shown that having highly trained and motivated teachers is far more important than small classroom sizes. Imagine the type of training you could have for a group of 4 teachers for $10k each, and you'd still be saving money. Teachers could be well versed on the latest educational techniques and trained in specific strategies to allow them to deliver effective content to their students. These types of changes in teacher training would allow our teachers to become some of the most quality educators in the practice.

Quality vs. Quantity
The negative side effect of having smaller classrooms, in addition to the cost, is the effect on teacher quality. All studies that have advocated for smaller classrooms assume equitable teacher quality. However, when you have to employ 400 teachers instead of 300 you can no longer be as picky. Furthermore, with greater numbers of teachers you can no longer oversee and review them with the same level of scrutiny and support. When an administrator has to review and oversee 40 teachers in a building instead of 30 then less time can be devoted to each educator.

The short of it
Phil Sherwood may have made this comment off the cuff, but he's made this assertion several times and it shows that he does not know what he is talking about. As someone who follows educational research closely as a matter of professional interest I find it insulting when people assert facts about which they know nothing. I hope that next year when the Board of Education and the Common Council come up for election we elect a slate of officials who actually do a bit of research to inform their policy decisions.

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