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The Tentacle


May 17, 2011

Class Size Fallacy Good Teacher Certainty

Farrell Keough

A new mitigation proposal for the Frederick County Adequate Public Facility Ordinance has been proposed. While some in the public are adamantly opposed to this proposition, it does offer something we have not had before – a mechanism to pay for school renovations and remodeling.

 

This will be fodder for many newspaper articles, columns, and editorials. Hence, it seems timely to focus on a different and much more basic aspect to the APFO – in short, class size.

 

The basis for this review is a White Paper* from Matthew M. Chingos, of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and a postdoctoral fellow at the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

 

As a generality, the Brookings Institute tends to lean toward more government for solutions to problems. Hence, this report has some very surprising findings!

 

Because of its importance, sections of the White Paper will be printed in full with commentary attached when necessary.

 

“Class-size reduction, or CSR, is enormously popular with parents, teachers, and the public in general. The latest poll results indicate that 77 percent of Americans think that additional educational dollars should be spent on smaller classes rather than higher teacher salaries. Many parents believe that their children will benefit from more individualized attention in a smaller class and many teachers find smaller classes easier to manage. The pupil-teacher ratio is an easy statistic for the public to monitor as a measure of educational quality, especially before test-score data became widely available in the last decade.”

 

[…]

 

“There is surprisingly little high-quality research, however, on the effects of class size on student achievement in the United States. The credible evidence that does exist is not consistent, and there are many low-quality studies with results all over the map. The most encouraging results for CSR come from a single experiment conducted in the 1980s, which found that a large reduction in class size in the early grades increased test scores, particularly among low-income and African American students.”

 

[…]

 

“The results of the STAR [Student Teacher Achievement Ratio] experiment after one year were encouraging: Students in the small kindergarten classes outperformed students in the regular-size classes on standardized tests by about 15 percent of a year of learning. But this effect did not increase after one year, and decreased by the end of the third grade when the experiment ended... The bump in test scores after one year would be impressive if it didn’t erode over time despite the continued use of small classes.”

 

Long and short, teacher quality is the defining factor. “Large-scale CSR policies clearly fail any cost-benefit test because they entail steep costs and produce benefits that are modest at best.”

 

“The fact that across-the-board CSR policies at the state or district level are not cost-effective does not mean that smaller classes should never be used, but rather that they should be reserved for use in special cases by individual schools. A principal may decide, for example, that a smaller class makes sense for an inexperienced teacher who needs support in developing skills to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. At the same time, the principal may want to assign a larger class to a highly effective veteran teacher, perhaps with some extra compensation for the additional work required. School districts should encourage this kind of creative management and enable it by collecting and providing to principals detailed data on their teachers and the classes they teach.’

 

[…]

 

“The vast majority of class-size studies are not rigorous, so their results are not very useful as a guide to policy. The primary difficulty in studying class size is that schools with different class sizes likely differ in many other, difficult-to-observe ways. More affluent schools are more likely to have the resources needed to provide smaller classes, which would create the illusion that smaller classes are better when in fact family characteristics were the real reason. Alternatively, a school that serves many students with behavior problems may find it easier to manage these students in smaller classes. A comparison of such schools to other schools might give the appearance that small classes produce less learning when in fact the behavior problems were the main factor.”

 

The costs are tied up in the numbers. For instance, if 24 students per class are defined as optimal, two entire classes must be created if 25 students are enrolled. This means at least 50% more teachers and building more classrooms. “And if small classrooms are built to accommodate small classes, schools may be stuck with small classes in the future even if they decide they are not cost-effective.”

 

“The popularity of class-size reduction may make it difficult for policymakers to pursue more cost-effective policies.”

 

[…]

 

“But an even better approach would be to let individual schools use small classes as a response to very specific circumstances. An individual principal may decide, for example, that a smaller class makes sense for an inexperienced teacher who needs support in developing skills managing a classroom with several students with behavior problems. At the same time, the principal may want to assign a larger class to a highly effective veteran teacher, perhaps with some extra pay to compensate the teacher for the extra work required. Of course, principals would need to be given the flexibility to make such carefully considered arrangements.”

 

So what can we do?

 

First, recognize this study presents valid information that these small class sizes are not benefiting either our children or our tax spending. Talk with others and turn this flawed perspective around.

 

Then, push our politicians to make the necessary changes to support realistic class sizes. Once the public begins to understand this flawed education model, the politicians will follow.

 

Finally, realize that funding our schools will be dramatically changed for the better once we implement these types of policies. For instance, the newly proposed mitigation fee(s) on top of our Impact Fee is one mechanism to provide the truly necessary funding.

 

 

*.pdf link to White Paper contained in article

 

fkeough@hotmail.com

 



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