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Bruno: Class Size Struggles Against "Low Cost" Alternatives

Keeping class sizes small is one of those reforms that really tests society's collective commitment to improving education. The new issue of the Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics has an interesting article that should factor into the class size debate going on around the country (and being touted by Democrats as an argument against the Romney/Ryan team and the Republican Congress). 

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The article's author, Yongyun Shin, finds that

for Black students, reduced class size causes higher academic achievement in the four domains [reading, mathematics, listening, and word recognition] each year from kindergarten to third grade, while for other students, it improves the four outcomes except for first-grade listening in kindergarten and first grade only. Evidence shows that Black students benefit more than others from reduced class size in first-, second-, and third-grade academic achievement.

On the one hand class size reduction is a reform that seems likely not only to raise achievement generally, but also to narrow achievement gaps. Small class sizes also have a powerful emotional appeal since nobody likes to think of children (especially your own!) getting lost in a sea of their peers.  And of course most teachers support it since it makes their jobs easier and creates a situation in which they're more likely to be effective.

On the other hand, small classes can be quite expensive and unlike many other reforms the required costs are obvious enough that they can't plausibly be sold as a low-cost fix. (Contrast this with, for example, moves to cut back teacher tenure. Because most of the costs of limiting tenure are indirect, less obvious, and do not require upfront monetary inputs, the reform appears "free" to implement.)

What this means is that when it comes to class size reforms, the choice for policy-makers and the public is unusually stark. My sense is that this means class size is under-discussed in education policy debates, since choices with the most clear trade-offs are often the hardest to make. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Interpreting the problem literally, I often hear parents maligning class sizes, while simultaneously complaining about taxes going up. How does that make sense? Teachers cost money. Hiring teachers is how class sizes shrink.

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