Thursday, March 12, 2009

Class Size

In spite of the fact that the Republican Party has decided on a strategy of lock-step obstructionists (as opposed to co-negotiators of national policy), President Obama has decided to take on one of its bedrock constituents, the teachers’ unions and other education organizations, on matters of education.

His education policy that he announced recently included planks on accountability testing and merit pay that teachers’ organizations have successfully opposed for years.

Earlier in the week I complained about two organizations – the Catholic Church and the Muslim leaders who run Saudi Arabia – for adopting rules, not because they are in the public interest, but because they serve to benefit the organization. In doing so, I also pointed out that these are human characteristics that do not require a belief in God.

Teachers’ organizations also fit this pattern – adopting rules that are harmful to others because the organization itself benefits those rules. It does not do so as a matter of a conspiracy. Instead, it follows a similar pattern of self-deception.

Whereas the religious groups above propose the fiction that, “These rules whereby individuals sacrifice their interests for the sake of the organization actually serve a higher purpose – that is God,” many teachers’ organizations promulgate the myth, “These policies that actually benefit the Union at a significant cost to others actually serve a higher purpose – the children.”

The most destructive of these myths is the myth of class size – that the best way to serve the interests of children is to have fewer children in a class. Fewer children per class means more teachers. More teachers means a larger union. A larger union means more economic power in the hands of union leaders.

However, take a serious look at what is implied by the principle of smaller class sizes.

Assume that you are going to create a brand new school. As long as we are entertaining a fantasy, let’s make it a free-thought school – a Camp Quest boarding school where students will not have to endure being told by their government and their teachers that moral worth and good citizenship require a belief in God.

We are going to have 3000 students in our school. If we assume a class size of 30 students per class, this means that we are going to need to hire 100 teachers. We place our advertisements, we hold our interviews, and we give our job offers.

If we are in any way competent and responsible in our hiring process we are going to hire the best 100 teachers who are willing to accept whatever we offer in terms of salary, benefits, and the like.

Note: Many studies on class size ignore the feature that adding class size means adding lower-quality teachers. Their study groups are made of teachers randomly drawn out of the teacher pool, rather than drawing the worst teachers out of the teacher pool.

Now, somebody comes along and says that, instead of 30 students per class we should have 20 students per class.

This means we are going to have to hire another 50 teachers.

Assuming that we are at all competent in our hiring process, we are going to have to hire 50 teachers who are not as good as the 100 teachers we actually hired. Furthermore, we are going to then transfer students away from teachers who have an average rank of 50 (out of our original 100 teachers), and give them teachers with an average rank of 125 (of our new staff of 150 teachers).

Finally, not only are we going to transfer a third of our students from better teachers to worse teachers, we are going to pay a substantial amount of money to do so. If we assume that we were going to pay each teacher $50,000 (regardless of merit), our budget for teaching has just jumped from $5 million to $7.5 million.

This does not include the extra cost to build additional classrooms and to buy classroom-specific (as opposed to student-specific) equipment and employee benefits.

But, let’s look on the bright side, the teachers’ organization would have 50 members it would not have otherwise had.

I want to repeat, this argument does not imply that the teachers’ organization is made up of people who are knowingly spreading lies for the sake of promoting their own interests regardless of who suffers. The teachers’ organization is made up of people who are as good at deceiving themselves as they are at deceiving others into believing that what is good for the Union is good for the students.

As I have said, this is a human failing. It is not a failing of the Saudi Arabian Muslims specifically, or of the Catholic Church, or of teachers’ organizations. As atheist organizations gain in power, we expect that their leaders, also, will confuse what benefits the leaders of the organization with what is right, and become proponents of evil policies themselves.


anton said...

The most destructive of these myths is the myth of class size – that the best way to serve the interests of children is to have fewer children in a class. etc.

I totally agree with you, Alonzo.

At one time I was involved in a "class room methods" development program during which I proved that a single teacher could easily handle a class of 45 students.

I borrowed the concept from my experiences as a child in a one-room school where we had more than 40 students in eight different grades. The teacher was certainly not "harried" or "run off her feet". Our education was certainly not compromised as proven by regular competitions with "regular" school children.

Our teacher simply addressed her intelligence to the situation and came up with an innovative formula that worked.

I am certain that most of our teaching profession would come up with similar solutions . . . if they were motivated to do so!

Unfortunately, they might lose standing in their club if they demonstrated they could handle a class of 40 or more students. As a group, teachers are no different from any other professional group. They protect their own kind, and resist any changes that would result in reality trumping paychecks!

Luke said...

Teacher's organizations, especially the big ones, are generally pernicious. They put the salary interests of lazy teachers above the educational needs of our children - the future of the world.

That said, the employee does need some help defending its interests against those of wealthy business owners.

I don't have a solution. Definitely not my field of expertise!

Anonymous said...

I am an elementary teacher (under-employed) so allow me to weigh in.

The size of a class is a barrier to learning in very young grades (up to Grade 3). Children at this age are very needy and require large amounts of supervision and direct interaction.

However, beyond this age the barriers to learning rest almost exclusively with the child. Those who can work independently can be put into larger class sizes where the role of the teacher is to monitor, evaluate and 'scaffold' their lesson (helping them to understand a concept by providing more instruction on the underlying information). It is here where children need to be separated from their peers and put into classes that meet their ability.

I cannot say whether the old 'one-room' schoolhouses were better but the mixture of students probably allowed the younger to learn from the older and the constant repitition and rote learning likely moved children ahead in the basics.

Today, school boards and unions are making decisions based on a model that, in my opinion, is flawed and has not been demonstrated to be effective. Rules are being written to constantly improve a broken model instead of building a new model entirely.

So I agree with Alonzo that the rules are being written to benefit the rule-makers and not necessarily the people effected. However, a larger issue may be that people loath to remake models even more than making rule changes and thus focus on rules instead of models.

As an example, the Catholic Church will not examine its model (that god is real and Catholicism is the true path to god) and instead alter, change and reinterpret the rules (however agonizingly slowly) in ways that are compatible with the leaders, and presumably, god.

anton said...

Humanist Dad I have scheduled a post dealing with the one-room school concept next week. Your comments included one of its secrets of success, namely the mixture. Conceived and executed intelligently, it works wonders. And, their is no wasted time dealing with discipline, which takes up so much of the teacher's time and represents a serious distraction to the non-offending students. For example, a Province of Alberta study in 1992 indicated that teachers spent as much as 35% of their class time dealing with class discipline.

Kevin Currie-Knight said...

As a high school teacher, I can attest that class size is quite a side issue. I would rather than a class of 40 honors kids, than have a class of 15 with 4 behaviorally challenged kids. (I know this from experience with both groups.) The issue is not class size, but discipline. A class of 40 can be decent if they are in line, there are clear rules, and students are conscientious. A class of 10 can spiral out of control if a few of them decide not to care about rules or consequences.

And yet, discipline seems to be getting lighter and lighter in the schools.

Efrique said...

To take your argument to its logical conclusion, pick the best teacher in the world, and get them to teach *everyone*.

As you correctly pointed out, adding any additional teachers to this class of hundreds of millions would make the rank of teacher for the transferred students worse.

Do you see the minor flaw there? Average teacher rank is not necesserily correlated with educational effectiveness.

If you don't accept that there should only be one teacher in teh world (and similarly, only one doctor, one police officer, one political leader, etc), then you must realize that in fact the eductional outcomes *must* improve if class sizes are reduced from a size where the teachers are not as effective as they'd otherwise be. If a class size is such that individual attention is not available when it would improve the educational outcome to have it, a smaller class would be better.

There's a tradeoff, of course, and ultimately there comes a point where even if a smaller class was fractionally better in terms of educational outcome, it may not be financially practical to do so. What would be necessary is some data to try to establish what an effective class size might be (in terms of cost and educational outcome -- and this would probably vary quite a lot, depending on many factors).

Alonzo Fyfe said...


My original draft of this post had a paragraph saying exactly the same thing that you did in your comment. Obviously, yes, we are talking about a case of diminishing marginal returns . . . at ultimately a case of negative returns.

On the other end, I could have made my point by saying, "lets take the case of class size to its extreme - and create a society in which there are 10 teachers for each child."

There is no reason to focus on one extreme and ignore the other. So, I cut mention of both extremes out of the post keep its size down.

Ultimately, however, I opted to keep my focus on the range of class sizes that the class size debate is actually concerned about, and trust that the audience knew that extremes in either direction was a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me schools don't hire teachers by surveying the entire universe of available teachers and then picking the top 100 (or whatever number). Seems to me that would be impossible. They establish criteria and basically take the first 100 teachers who come to them that meet the criteria. Assuming this to be true, adding another 50 teachers does not necessarily mean hiring worse quality teachers. While class size may not have the pronounced effect some claim it to have, your argument seems fatally flawed to me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your counter-argument would be valid only in a universe with one school.

Anonymous said...


Well, I don't quite see that. Taking good teachers out of pool of available teachers will probably have some effect, but I don't see how it could be as marked as you suggest. It's not clear to me that only less skilled people will remain (as per my argument above), also other skilled people could be influenced to join the pool. Yes, clearly diminishing returns will occur, but in your example of 30 to 20, is the loss of teacher quality really more than the benefit accrued from more individualized teacher/student interaction? I don't think you've proved that case.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how things work in the US, but over here (Australia), the main problem with teacher quality has nothing to do with how many teachers you hire. The universities train the number of teachers required by the governments (because no one wants to be a full fee paying student doing a teaching degree), and all, or at least the vast majority, get a job.

The quality is set by the universities. Yes, they drop their entrance requirements when they need more teachers, but it's already down low enough that we just aren't getting intelligent, academically minded teachers in maths and science. Also, entrance requirements for universities are set based on how well you do in high school (or, if you did a degree first and are doing a graduate diploma of education as a 1-year addition, it's based on your average grades from your undergrad degree) - it's not based on your competency in teaching a class of students.

Now, I hold a maths degree, graduated end of last year (actually, my degree conferral ceremony is in a couple of weeks' time), and I've been looking into teaching as a possible career choice, to do my dip. ed. next year. I've been tutoring kids (up to 3rd year uni level) in maths as a way to earn a few extra dollars the tax man doesn't know about, and I enjoyed it, so I started looking into high school teaching. You know what I discovered? In order to get into undergrad education, you only need a UAI of 55.

A translation for those of you who live under a different system: UAI = University Admissions Index, and is a number that represents the percentage of people in your year that you beat at the end of high school. I had an extremely poor work ethic (as in, I didn't hand in half of my assignments and never studied for more than 5 minutes for any exam), and I still managed to get 96.2. Roughly 30% of people don't do enough courses in year 12 to get a UAI at all, so the very lowest you can possibly get is 30. You don't get told what you get if it's below 50. You need 70 to get into most universities in a standard BA or BSc.

So, yes, you need virtually no results at all to get into undergraduate education. But I'm interested in undergrad - I have my maths degree. As I mentioned earlier, though, I have no work ethic at all, and went through a lot of my degree with the motto of "P's make degrees". I was a bit worried that my poor results in my final year might mean I wasn't qualified to enter a graduate course at all.

Nope. There are absolutely *no* requirements to have got more than 51% your whole way through a degree, as long as you have a major in a suitable subject area to teach for high school, or a broad range of subjects for primary teaching. You passed your degree? Awesome! You can come be a teacher.

Heck, my local university (UC) is *still* advertising government funded places in their dip. ed. program, and term started 4 weeks ago.

The problem is that teaching is such a low prestige job. My mother was a maths teacher (before changing to a computer programmer because it paid better), and she told me there were three types of people who become teachers. Firstly, those who want to do something that uses a degree but can't qualify for anything better. Secondly, those (especially women) who want hours that let them spend a lot of time with their kids. And thirdly, those with a true passion, a love of it. I was really lucky. I got a lot of the third kind when I was at school. Mum was squarely in the 2nd - she changed to a better paying job as soon as her elder kids were old enough to be at home alone in the afternoons (and they looked after me).

People with any kind of intelligence and work ethic can get a better job than teaching. Heck, I'm driving busses at the moment, and if I change to teaching, it will be a massive pay cut. Like, about 30% pay cut. I love teaching kids maths, but I don't know if I will do it or not, because the money is poor and the job carries no respect.

I suppose, basically, my entire long-winded point is that when you go out to hire your "100 teachers", you *don't get the best 100 people. You get the scrapings off the bottom of the barrel, unless your school already has a good name for itself and pays better than anyone else. And when you're comparing 100 scrapings to 150 scrapings... well, there isn't a whole lot of difference. If the difference between 30 kids in a class and 20 kids in a class makes a stastically significant difference (and I haven't read the studies - it might not), and you have the money to do it, then you might as well...

Of course, the better solution would be to up the pay, increase the prestige, and elect some representitives who don't think that intellectual elitism is a dirty word.

[Sorry about the incredibly long winded ramble. This has been tumbling through my mind ever since I started looking into doing my dip ed next year... it makes me mad]

Kristopher said...

smaller class size is a complex issue that both alonzo and the teachers union have over simplified

sometimes smaller classes make sense sometimes large classes are fine.

kevin and humanist dad make some good points

older / independent children can have larger class sizes than clingy / younger children

a disciplined class of 40 can get more done that a class of 10 with 4 miscreants.

also classes like chem 101 dont lend to alot of debate or discussion you can have 1 teacher in an ampitheater teach that class (if you allow miscreants not to attend you will find that discipline is not a problem)

but languge classes need more one on one with teachers they ned smaller size. so do higher level philosophy classes where discussion is key.

the problem with the pope, teachers unions, and the republican party is not that they say something that is not true it is that they hit an issue that benefits them and is true sometimes and pretend that it is true all the time becuase of their pro-self bias.

they pretend it is a question between large class rooms and small class rooms. capatalism or socialism. abstinance or HIV. but reality is much more nuanced than any of these false dichotomies suggest.

in your post you argue that one side of a flase dichotomy is false. which is a true statement but it implicitly reinforces the existance of the false dichotomy which is reckless. it would have been better for you to attack both sides of the dichotomy in your post.