In a class of their own

Posted: May 30, 2012 in civil rights
Tags: , , , ,

For years, Treasury has been telling governments that the preponderance of research suggests that class sizes aren’t directly related to the quality of education, and for the first time, they’ve found a government willing to listen.

In some respects, Treasury may not be entirely wrong. When you get motivated students in a large class with a good teacher that relies mostly on theory, there may be little or no need for individual-level tutoring. This is the system that most university papers rely on, because on the most part people who actually show up to their classes are likely to learn well so long as their lecturer is audible, reasonably informed on the subject, and not terrible at teaching. In that kind of environment a 100-level spanish paper with hundreds of students is likely little different to a 200-level or 300-level German paper with just a few students, assuming the same teacher.

There are a few things being overlooked by extending that analysis to secondary, intermediate, and even primary schools, though:

  • Very little of the academic analysis on class size is backed up by evidence. The only large-scale study that randomly assigned students to classes found that younger students benefit more from smaller classes than older students- exactly how you’d expect given the different paradigms in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In particular, years one and two get the largest benefit from reduced class size. Other studies have only approximated rigorous experimental conditions and I would say it’s unwise to give them too much weight.
  • Queries and the need for direct supervision are much higher in primary and secondary education, which makes class size a quality of work issue. The best, most in-demand teachers will be drawn to opportunities for smaller class sizes where they do not feel harried by students, and can run a more relaxed classroom where little of their energy is needed to direct their students to the topic at hand.
  • Any detrimental effect to adding an additional student to a class probably shrinks relative to the existing class size. The leap from a teacher that manages forty students to one that manages fifty might be similar to the leap between a teacher that manages 50 and one that manages a hundred.
  • Class size is an exacerbating factor to other difficulties in our education system. Kids with learning difficulties, kids who go to low-decile schools where poverty is common, and kids from homes that don’t value learning or provide additional resources for learning will likely all notice a much larger difference in outcomes from reduced class size than those that don’t. Cutting funding for teachers for private or very high standard public schools might make little difference, but extending that policy below the highest decile schools is likely to have a large effect both on education outcomes and generational poverty.
  • As many people are pointing out, class size is an infrastructure issue. Many rooms are designed around a set number of students, especially technology education, and can’t easily be modified to take additional students. There are additional hidden costs waiting to happen.

Increasing class sizes could be a good cost-saving measure, that allows our best teachers to educate more students- if it’s done at high levels of education for only the best or most advantaged students. Ideally, we should operate some sort of scaling class size system, where classes shrink as other challenges increase. Unfortunately, as with all education funding, this is a matter of inter-generational theft, and people into their working age don’t want to fund the possible success of the next generation- or rather, some don’t, some do, and some don’t care because they’re going to make sure their family’s kids go to private school.

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