Friday, March 4, 2011

The Class Size U-Turn

With austerity measures sweeping the nation most states have elected to cut social services including funds directed towards education. For years school reformers have championed the notion that one of the key elements to increasing student performance is to shrink class sizes. However, these near-future budget cuts will reduce the number of teachers. This reduction will increase the number of students per class in those affected environments. It seems like an important element in the school reformer plan will be placed on hold for the time being… or maybe not. Despite this pattern of singing the praises of small class sizes, like those possessed by the KIPP charter schools, school reformers, including Bill Gates, have all of a sudden changed their tune. The elimination of teachers will be a good thing because now good teachers, not bad teachers, will teach more students. Due to the fact that multiple studies have demonstrated that the quality of the instructor is one of the most important, if not the most important, element in a student’s ability to learn increasing class size is all of a sudden a great thing.

Unfortunately for school reformers that share this belief their epiphany suffers from two critical flaws. The first flaw is that instructor quality will not be taken into consideration when the vast number of teachers dismissed as a result of these cuts in social services. Currently no valid evaluation method has been established to effectively and fairly judge teaching performance; therefore, any targeted dismissal will follow standard procedures with younger teachers taking the brunt of the dismissals regardless of their overall teaching credentials and quality. With this method of ‘teacher filtration’ there is no legitimate way to judge the quality of the remaining teachers in the future environment over the quality of the teachers in the present environment. It is quite possible that the ‘higher quality’ teachers will be fired and more students will end up in front of ‘bad’ teachers.

The second flaw is that most school reformers tend not to understand what makes a quality teacher. The principle element which determines the quality of a teacher is the teaching methodology. It is irrational to believe that there is any significant difference between the way that teacher A writes a lesson on a blackboard or talks about a PowerPoint presentation over teacher B in the context of quality. Therefore, the quality characteristic for in-class performance stems largely from unique nuances in a particular teaching methodology. Most effective teaching methodologies rely on direct teacher-student interaction, especially the most effective methodology: the Socratic Method. However, with more students in a classroom the probability that any given student interacts in such a direct way with the teacher is reduced. Thus, by this probability metric it is more probable that for any methodology that utilizes teacher-student interaction the overall methodology will be less effective relative to the size of the class.

A third issue that ties back to quality teaching is how a larger class size affects teachers off-hours. One of the more misrepresented elements of teaching is the total level of work a teacher performs. Some individuals draw the conclusion that teachers do not work very hard because the official school day in a vast majority of schools is only 6 to 6.5 hours long. However, these individuals do not consider the work required by teachers in preparation for the next school day nor the work required to grade homework, quizzes and tests to determine how effectively students are learning.

Not surprisingly because these individuals do not consider these aspects of teaching they do not realize that prepping for tomorrow’s lesson and grading various items is time-consuming and difficult work, especially for those that are ‘good’ teachers because of the effort applied. Increase that off-hour work load by 1.5 to 2 times and take a wild guess about how long that teacher will remain a quality teacher frayed by a work load no reasonable person should be expected to handle. In fact under such constraints as a 40-60 student classroom, which will be common under some of these teaching termination proposals, most homework, quizzes and tests will more than likely revert to multiple choice format. Unfortunately it is common knowledge that multiple choice format testing does not lend itself well to teaching and refining critical thinking skills which will be the most important skill for citizens and workers in the future.

So larger class sizes have only an even shot at best at putting more student in front of ‘good’ teachers, increase the probability that those ‘good’ teachers will be less effective and increase the probability that these student not receive the skills that are most important for the future, will those that suddenly believe larger class sizes to be advantageous please explain how this viewpoint could possibly be logical and correct?

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