The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"There are obvious places in which government can narrow the chasm between haves and have-nots.  One is the public schools, which have been seen as the great leveler, the authentic melting pot.  That, today, is nonsense.  In his scathing study of the nation's public school system entitled "Savage Inequalities," Jonathan Kozol made manifest the truth: that we have a system that discriminates against the poor in everything from class size to curriculum."...  ...Anna Quindlen.

Commentary of the Day - August 24, 2004:  Sizing Things Up.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

One of the compensations of age is the right to remember the past as more arduous and heroic than the present.  Global warming isn't why I get to say the snow was deeper when I was a kid.  It's because life was tougher back then, the same way, based on the testimony I heard in my youth, life had been even tougher when my father and grandfather were growing up.

There's a fair amount of truth in our recollections.  Over the late century we have grown more pampered and accustomed to ease.  Machines do more and more of our work, and more and more we look like it. Progress certainly hasn't been a bad thing in every instance, but comparisons between past and present don't always favor the here and now.

Everyone's heard the old grandfather's tale about trudging ten miles to school, uphill both ways.  Filter out the embellishments, and you're still left with the reality that generally today we do have more school buses and kids do walk shorter distances.  The reasons behind the change -- the demise of local schools in favor of larger regional plants, the hazards posed by faster, thicker traffic in congested communities, fears for our children's personal safety -- are worth discussion.  So are the ramifications, which include higher transportation costs, inhumanly mammoth campuses, and a coincident decline in physical fitness.

Alongside is the image of the antique schoolmarm, teaching fifty-seven kids from first to eighth grade while she fed the wood stove with her free hand.  Exaggeration here aside, too, typical class sizes are substantially smaller than they used to be.  Where they're not, many education experts are urging that they should be.

Opponents of class size reduction call the past as a witness.  They remind us that as recently as the 1950s, thirty students in a high school class was typical and viewed as educationally practical.  They assert that reductions in class size over the past forty years have not yielded proportional improvements in student performance.  They also cite schools in Japan and other industrialized nations where classes are larger and test scores are higher than ours.

Any broad comparison involving nations and decades is bound to be potentially misleading.  Clearly, a lot more distinguishes the United States from Japan than our respective student-teacher ratios.  And a lot more happened in American schools and society between my fifth and fiftieth birthdays besides smaller high school classes.  If, in fact, smaller classes haven't yielded academic gains, the abundance of variables begs the question, "Would achievement today be even worse if classes hadn't shrunk?"

In addition, class size isn't the same as student-teacher ratio.  Owing to the expansion of special education and social services, you'll find more adults in most school buildings today.  That doesn't necessarily mean you'll find fewer students in each classroom.

Predictably, the surplus of variables has spawned a surplus of expert interpretations.  Class reduction advocates, citing Tennessee's 1980s STAR Project, contend that "students in small classes consistently scored higher on achievement and basic skills tests."  Skeptics prefer a 1998 study compiled by Eric Hanushek, an economics professor.  Mr. Hanushek argues that STAR yielded benefits primarily at the kindergarten level, and that overall there is "NO relationship between class size and student performance."  He concludes that "achievement for the typical student will be unaffected" by class size reduction and that the resulting "dramatic increase in the costs of schooling" will be "unaccompanied by achievement gains."

Positioned in the middle, Johns Hopkins' Robert Slavin notes that shrinking classes from 22 to 18 probably won't "make a big difference."  Not surprisingly, reducing from 30 to 18 will probably "make a much larger difference."  Meanwhile, Scientific American characterizes everybody's data as "inconclusive."

Following a 1996 California class size initiative, California's Public Policy Institute reported improved scores for students "who had the benefit of both a small class and a veteran teacher."  Unfortunately, reducing class size often meant hiring "inexperienced teachers" for the additional classrooms.  Test scores for their students declined, so the net result was "no appreciable effect" on statewide averages.

California's experience demonstrates how misleading averages can be.  It also illustrates how easy it is to discount or ignore factors affecting student achievement.  According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, the signal difference between Japanese and American classrooms isn't class size.  The problem for American classrooms is "student misbehavior," coupled with the fact that "many public schools do not allow teachers to use effective methods of controlling students."  When Hillary Clinton voiced her approval of France's school system, The New York Times observed that "many American parents probably would not be satisfied with the regimentation and discipline needed to make large classes productive."

Critics who resist reducing class size understandably want to avoid repeating our perennial mistake of throwing money at bandwagon prescriptions for school problems.  On the other hand, it's simplistic and inaccurate to charge that teachers only endorse smaller classes so our jobs get easier and taxpayers have to hire more of us.

I've taught regular junior high classes as large as thirty students.  Conditions vary from group to group, but in my experience, twenty-two marks the frontier where class size begins to interfere with learning.  Fifteen to twenty is ideal.  Fewer than that and unless you've got an extremely talented group, you begin to lack the fuel for the kind of animated discussion that benefits everybody.  I have no data to justify my magic numbers, but I can testify for sure that the number of students in the room makes a difference.

It affects the activities and the methods I can employ.  It affects how many behavioral brush fires I have to extinguish.  It affects how many papers I have to read and grade, how thoroughly I can comment on them, and how quickly I can return them.  It affects how many times I can call on each student each day, how many questions I can ask, and how many examples students get to practice out loud so I can gauge their understanding.  It affects how many opportunities they have to participate in discussions, to test their knowledge, and to hone their skills.

Many other factors influence learning and achievement. Mr. Hanushek holds that "the quality of the teacher is more important than class size." I'd add that the effort and intention of each student is also more critical.  But the existence of arguably more crucial factors doesn't give us license to pretend that class size isn't crucial, too.

©2004, Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer comments addressed to him in care of the editor.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP's experience with class size has been entirely at the college level.  So it differs somewhat from Poor Elijah's experience.  However, there are some commonalities.  In the IP's experience, classes with 20 or fewer students tend to promote discussion in a way that larger classes do not.  When the class size has been 40 or more, the IP has noticed that students are reluctant to ask questions.  It is far too easy to be anonymous in those large classes.  When the class size has been between 20 and 40 students still seemed willing to ask questions even though it was difficult to promote active discussion.

Return to main commentary.

© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.