Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How Small is Small Enough?

I'm short on time today, so I'm allowing Mike Petrilli to do my thinking for me. He asks a very good question:

"Will teachers ever think their classes are small enough?" (to which his answer is "Doubtful.")

When I was teaching, my classes ranged from 23-29 students over the course of the year (due to student mobility). And, yes, I thought they were too large -- if for no other reason than because it was quite difficult to effectively monitor that many students at the same time. I was pretty convinced that my classes would have been fundamentally different if I had 10-15 students.

I don't know of any feasible way to fund a 50% reduction in class size, but let's say it happened. If I were teaching a class of, say, 13 students would I think that my class was small enough? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. I have little doubt that I could teach 13 students more effectively than 26, but I also have little doubt that I could teach 6 or 7 students more effectively than 13 -- so I'm not sure I'd have a strong incentive to think my classes were small enough even with only 13 students. Even if I had two students, I'm not sure that I would say that my class was small enough because I might be able to do a lot more good with only one of the students at a time.

So maybe he's right, maybe teachers would never say that classes were small enough.

But maybe that's not quite the right question. I can't imagine not wishing for fewer students in my class, but I can imagine thinking that other policy ideas would do more good than reducing class sizes. Let's say, for example, that somebody provided me a list of 10 reforms and asked me to rank them in order of which reforms might do the most amount of good. I could imagine "reducing class size" falling down that list as the size of my class shrunk.

Then again, my perception of the size of my class would probably rely largely on the size of other classes that I saw and experienced. If I had 13 students and the average class size in the country was 8, I'd probably still complain.

Anyway, enough rambling. Back to the question. At what point would class sizes be small enough?


RDT said...

My experience is that teachers start having doubts about reducing class size when they realize that there's a trade-off between smaller classes and higher salaries...

I've also heard teachers of high achieving high school students talk of 18 or so as optimal -- smaller than that and you don't get good discussions.

Anonymous said...

I taught large classes in public schools and small classes in private schools.

My take on class size: Larger classes work much better with high achieving students. Smaller classes are necessary for low peforming students and students with learning disabilities and/or behavior problems.

I found it easier to teach 30+ honors students than to teach 5-10 low-income students with learning disabilities and/or emotional disabilities.

I agree with Rachel that when you have very small classes of high achieving students, some of the ability to hold interactive discussions and lessons diminishes.

Nancy Flanagan said...

As an instrumental music teacher, I was accustomed to handling classes of 65 middle school students, often more--so it's hard for me to understand when teachers adamantly demand and defend tiny class size reductions. Is there much difference between 18 and 20? The saving grace, for me, was having the students over multiple years, which allowed relationships to develop--and I think that's where thoughtful teachers can make a good case for reducing class size. Knowing your students well, the ability to analyze their learning needs, is key. And that is significantly impaired with large groups.

The research, of course, doesn't show much difference in achievement related to class size--except for very early grades, where literacy instruction is demonstrably improved by more individualized attention. There's also some evidence that smaller class sizes provide a bigger achievement bounce in high-needs populations.

The problem is that many bargained teacher contracts don't allow for a lot of latitude in tailoring class size to optimum educational effect. If you have a superstar secondary lecturer on staff, why doesn't that teacher have groups of 50, perhaps with an aide to help with grading? Teachers with heavy writing loads might need significantly smaller classes. And so on. One size fits all doesn't work with class size.

My take on this (and this is not statistical analysis, just armchair observation): Good teachers make the adjustments needed to keep instruction effective, even when their class sizes are large. They will have to cut corners--fewer writing assignments, more group projects, perhaps fewer labs, dependent on the students and their subjects. But they will still produce solid learning gains, even if they know that the work could be done better. The thing is--those good teachers know which instructional shortcuts can be used. For a teacher with weak skills, class size simply reduces the amount of work without having any impact on student learning.