How Cartoons and Calculators Resolved The Class-Size Debate

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I don’t remember where I saw it, just the caption of the cartoon. It showed a classroom full of active children in the background and one parent saying to another: "We don’t need smaller classes. We need bigger teachers."

I think that maybe those parents were on to something.

Perhaps no issue has lingered longer than that of reducing class sizes in K-12 classrooms. Recent federal initiatives have renewed the debate about the value of general class-size reductions. Hundreds of studies of the effect of class-size reductions have been conducted. As a professor of educational research, I know there are strengths and weaknesses in those studies. Typically, when such is the state of affairs on an education issue, we say, "More research is necessary."

I say, "Less research is necessary."

I have the answer to the class-size question, and I’m willing to share it. And, I think, I’ve been able to resolve the issue most elegantly. Once and for all. I did not receive a hefty federal grant to accomplish this. No complex matched-subject design. No sophisticated statistical analysis. No graduate assistants. No overhead. Actually, the only equipment I used was the free calculator they gave me for an eight-gallon fill-up at a local gas station. I should get a prize. I’ll divulge my technique shortly. First, however, a little more background.

Many researchers have labored to investigate the achievement benefits of smaller classes. In the largest and most recent research summary to date, a professor at the University of Rochester, Eric A. Hanushek, found that the kinds of reductions in class size being considered today (that is, going from 28 students per class to 25, or even to 20) are ineffective in improving student achievement. It’s true at the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels. Mr. Hanushek observed that the one exception to the rule is that small reductions in class size at the kindergarten level do yield achievement gains. Across the K-12 spectrum, however, we know that current class-size proposals really won’t result in achievement benefits for students. Even critics of Mr. Hanushek’s work admit that even when gains are observed, they can best be described as, well, puny.

Yet the calls for smaller classes persist. It’s like using a bad e-mail address: You can try over and over to send the note, but you just keep getting an error notification that says the message didn’t get though.

Teachers and parents still demand smaller class sizes. This is so odd. It’s probably a good thing that both the public and the profession recognize the need for changes in the education system. Unfortunately, for people to demand the "solution" of smaller classes is like cancer patients demanding the placebo.

I think the reason the message isn’t getting through is that there has been too much research, when all that is needed is a bit of arithmetic. I’ll now divulge my method.

Stop reading now, and go get a calculator. If everyone follows these directions, readers will be able to say they participated in a unique event. So, let’s give it a name.

We’ll call it the "National Calculator Class-Size Consensus Project." In just a few moments from now, we will have collaborated to resolve the class-size debate. Ready? OK, let’s begin.

Let’s consider a typical proposal to reduce class sizes. We’ll start with a typical classroom of, say, 25 students. Enter 25 on your calculator. Now, let’s examine the effect of reducing class size by 10 percent—to about 22 students. And let’s not worry about money. Our proposal would have the obvious effect of costing a considerable amount of money: Ten percent more teachers would be needed, so our school district’s largest cost (salaries and benefits) would automatically increase by 10 percent. But cost doesn’t matter to us. In fact, even though we know that the achievement gains that would result are either slim (if you believe one set of research results) or none (if you prefer the other results), let’s also say that achievement gains don’t matter to us. We are left with the most frequently proffered rationale for reducing class sizes: the extra individual attention for students.

But let’s look at all this extra individualizing, tutoring, nurturing, or whatever. With our calculators, let’s take a typical 50-minute class period for reading or biology—it doesn’t matter what the subject area or grade level is—and let’s begin with the class of 25 students. Of that 50 minutes, we know that teachers spend about 15 minutes on "housekeeping"—things like taking attendance, collecting field-trip money, passing back homework, and so on. That leaves 35 minutes for "teaching." Of course, all teachers don’t spend all 35 minutes standing in front of a class leading a lesson; they don’t spend all 35 minutes working individually with students either. It’s more common that they do a little of both. So let’s suppose that the teacher spends 20 minutes actually teaching; the remaining 15 minutes are available for working one-on-one with students. (Of course, this probably doesn’t happen either. Teachers might not spend the entire 15 minutes working with students; they might use some of that time to grade papers, give directions to an aide, etc. We’ll give the benefit of the doubt, however, in our example.)

So, for our calculations, we’ll say that the teacher spends the entire 15 minutes working individually with students and, remarkably, it takes her no time at all to go from one student to the next. Moreover, let’s say that this teacher is extremely fair, so that she divides the 15 minutes equally between her 25 students. We, too, will divide 15 minutes by 25 students. We find that each student gets exactly 36 seconds of one-on-one attention. Better than nothing, but not much.

Now, let’s reduce the teacher’s class size by 10 percent. Very costly in dollars, we know, but let’s look at what is gained in terms of attention to individual students. The teacher now divides her 15 minutes among 22 students instead of 25, meaning each student now gets a little more than 40 seconds of individual attention compared with 36.

We now see quite clearly why the more expensive research showed little achievement gain associated with smaller classes. In fact, with only a little more than four extra seconds of one-on-one time, it’s amazing that there was even a small benefit for kindergartners. It is now safe to turn off your calculator.

So why are parents and educators still staring into the headlights of the current class-size proposals? For one thing, most parents can be excused for continuing to support smaller classes because they haven’t participated in our calculations. More likely, many parents have become distracted into focusing on educational inputs, as opposed to results.

For example, I was speaking to an elementary school parent group recently. I asked the parents to imagine that they were concerned about fire protection, and that their local school board was responsible for overseeing firefighting services. Would they demand that firefighters get bigger hoses, have shinier trucks, more comfortable boots, or smaller fire sizes? Of course not. They wouldn’t focus on inputs, but results. They’d demand that firefighters be on the scene within two minutes and for the fire to be extinguished in the shortest amount of time.

With regard to the schools, however, many parents focus almost exclusively on inputs. As a result, they end up functioning more like teachers’ union auxiliaries than effective advocates for their children. And parents love their children. From what they hear, the class-size issue is framed as a choice between: (1) having their children in overcrowded classrooms where tiny tots are packed in like firewood in a dump truck and the teacher must focus exclusively on preventing bone dislocations brought about by mob rule; and (2) a nurturing environment where each individual child is treated as a unique person and guided (in a developmentally appropriate way, of course) by a loving professional who helps each emerging flower reach his or her maximum potential. What will it be for your child, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, Lord of the Flies, or Walden? This is not a hard choice for parents.

While we can perhaps understand why parents favor the null hypothesis, how can we explain why many educators plead for the placebo, knowing that it is ineffective?

I have a hunch. I’ve been a teacher. I still am. I prefer a smaller class to a larger one. To be perfectly honest, though, the benefit is for me, not the students. I have fewer papers to grade. I feel less hassled at the end of the day, I have fewer individual students’ needs to adapt to, fewer parent conferences, less record keeping, and so on. Frankly, it’s just plain easier to teach 22 students than 25. If I had a class of 15, a class of 14 would be nicer. At some point, if we are to be truthful about class size, we need to acknowledge that class-size reductions primarily benefit teachers, and offer little or no reward for students, parents, or the community. Of the menu of things we could do with scarce education resources, using them to reduce class sizes is perhaps the biggest waste of those resources. You don’t get an achievement bang for the class-size buck; not even a whisper.

What should be done with funds contemplated for class-size reductions? Certainly, there are some situations in which those funds could effectively be spent on smaller classes, particularly in the earliest grades. Just as certainly, there are better ways to spend most of it. Some policy analysts have suggested that the money would be much more effectively spent attracting higher-quality teachers initially, and/or enhancing the professional development of current staff members. Maybe we should focus on recruiting teachers with "bigger" sets of skills, bigger content knowledge, and help current teachers become bigger masters of their craft.

You know what? That cartoon I saw may not have been far from the mark: Maybe we don’t need smaller classes, just bigger teachers after all.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 26, 30

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as How Cartoons and Calculators Resolved The Class-Size Debate
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