Friday, July 17, 2009

Second issue upon return: The fallacy of cutting class size

There is something that constantly bothers me about proponents of cutting class sizes.  The lack of logic behind it. 

Think about this.  I have a class of 25 and a class of 35.  Simple question; will the quality of education drop with increase in class size? 

According to a member of my district school board, the answer is "no".  Dave Johnson is a member of Ukiah Unified's School Board, and frequent reader of this blog.  We've had a variety of respectable political disagreements, but haven't really blogged about opposing viewpoints in terms of education.  His recent post regarding class size reduction pushed me to finally comment.  Like many conservative ideologues, Mr. Johnson sees the cost of class size outweighing the benefits, something that is argued a lot in the realm of educational politics.  Compare the United States to other countries, so goes the argument, and you will see that test scores are higher with larger class sizes, thus negating the necessity of class size reduction.  The argument is so damn flawed that it is pretty laughable. 

The video on Mr. Johnson's post is from the Fordham Institute, and establishes class sizes in the United States (13.8 to 1), Japan (18.5 to 1), and South Korea (25.6 to 1) and compares the relationship to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Math Test.  In the test, administered to 15 year olds around the world, the United States was hammered, and the results are often used to make a classic conservative reformer argument; education spending does not equal educational output.  In a sense, the argument is correct because eventually everything loses its benefit if the costs are too high.  The problem with the Fordham video is that the culprit isn't society, it's class size reduction.  I find this interesting because the Fordham Institute has a pretty rich history of calling out society for educational problems.  In this case, they go after teachers.

First off, when I actually average 14 students per class, I'll let you know.  In fact, when anyone in my department reaches the 14 student class size I'll make an announcement to the world on this blog.  However, you'll be waiting a pretty damn long time because I haven't seen a core class in 9 years that hasn't had well over 20 per class.  My three U.S. History classes last year all had over 30, my AP class had 24, and my elective had over 25.  Call me crazy, but I highly doubt the 14 student average in the United States.

Speaking of the United States and its comparison to South Korea and Japan, let's look at the core of the issue.  It sure isn't class size.  I'll tell you why test scores are up in South Korea, Japan, and Finland too for that matter (the country that seems to shock everyone).  Two reasons. 

One is homogenous populations.  All three countries have the benefit of a similar ethnic population.  That's not meant as a slight, that's the truth.  The nations don't have to deal with a fraction of the educational, political, and social issues that are common place with multi-ethnic societies.  Think I'm full of it?  Take out all the second language learners from the United States and recheck test scores, then tell me that I'm full of it.  Then take away the social issues that create cultural divides.  Eliminate those, then recheck test scores and see what happens.  Oh, and while your at it, take away all that money that goes to support immigrants, from welfare to education to printing foreign language DMV forms, and give it to education.  See what happens to test scores then.  I'm not anti-immigrant, and I'm not saying that homogenous societies are necessarily healthy, but they sure are a whole lot more efficient.  They don't have to take too many classes is multi-cultural sensitivity in Finland, they focus on education. 

But guess what, multi-culturalism isn't going away in the United States, so let's get to the real reason that South Korea and Japan have higher Math scores.  It's because they actually value education!  Yes folks, only in America can you hear so many blowhards talk about the need for a good education, only to piss it away because getting elected is more important in a democracy.  Only in America is it more important to win the Homecoming Spirit Bell than to get good Advanced Placement scores.  Only in America can you actually excuse mediocrity because of a cruise to Hawaii.  It's interesting that the other thing that Finland, South Korea, and Japan have in common is that they genuinely value teachers in society and treat the institution of education with respect.  Teacher decisions are met with support from parents and communities, while governments demand not only education from the instructor, but from the family as well.  In the United States, we bullshit about education.  We set well-intentioned but idiotic goals (NCLB), we shy away from fixing the problem (rise of charters), we protect bad teachers (unions), and worse, we actually believe that most teachers are 'bad teachers', an image that society seems to accept to cover its own hypocrisy.  That image is promoted by Mr. Johnson's video.  

So back to the original question.  I have a class of 25 and a class of 35.  Will the quality of education drop with increase in class size?  The answer is, of course it will.  It won't be intentional and it won't be for a lack a trying, but struggling students are not going to get the time for help, signs of distress will be overlooked, and teachers are going to have to create lesson plans that put more focus on managing a classroom and less focus on essentials.  Now you might say, "Well a good teacher should be able to manage a class of 35 and focus on essentials".  Yes and no.  I can manage a class of 35 with no problem.  But do you think that I'm going to assign more essays during the year with more kids per class?  I'll tell you what, those extra 10 students per class equal 50 more essays to grade during my weekend, and that takes a toll on my ability to teach with maximum output and efficiency.  Lesson plans will suffer, classroom instruction will suffer (when a teacher actually has a restful weekend, they teach better the next week), and burn out will be right around the corner.  And that's for the experienced teacher.  Good teachers take years to develop.  Think about the new teacher with 35 students per class and the management and work that goes with that situation, compared to 25.  The difference is HUGE!  I'm telling the new teacher "No, don't make an essay test.  Keep it multiple choice" or "Instead of the essay, do a reading and Socratic Seminar" in a class of 35.  We are talking about survival here!

In the end, there will always be pundits that don't see the value of class size because they see it as a crutch for bad teachers.  Note to pundits, it won't change the bad teachers and it will make life more difficult for good ones.  Unless you are about massively overhaul the education's place in society, better stay with class size reduction.          

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