Can We Improve Education By Increasing Class Size?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

Microsoft genius Bill Gates has a counter-intuitive, money-saving idea that he says might just boost student achievement: strategically raise class sizes. In advance of a national governors gathering, Gates expressed his concern over looming education budget cuts. But he's not convinced that education cuts necessarily have to harm students. Gates says that instead of using seniority to lay off teachers, school districts could save money by firing bad teachers and putting more students into the classrooms of teachers who get stellar student achievement results.

What's in it for the high achieving teachers? Financial incentives. But, even with teachers getting a bonus for taking on more students, Gates says school districts would still save money because they'd have fewer teachers overall. And, students might benefit and actually learn more from being in the room with a great teacher instead of languishing in the classroom of someone who's incompetent. "There are people in the field who think class size is the only thing," Gates said. "But in fact, the dominant factor is having a great teacher in front of the classroom."

As evidence, Gates cited a 2008 survey (PDF) funded by the Gates Foundation which determined that "83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay." Gates also said that additional money saved by school districts, "could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great."

But that's not exactly what the survey said. Leonie Haimson, a New York City-based parent advocate and executive director of Class Size Matters notes that the survey actually showed that "many teachers would take a $5,000 pay increase instead of a reduction in class size of two students per class—which is very different from preferring an increase in their class size."

Although the input of actual classroom teachers doesn't often seem to matter in the education reform conversation, Haimson cites other surveys where

teachers say that the best way to improve their effectiveness would be to reduce class size—over salary increases, merit pay or any other policy. (For example, see this national survey from Public Agenda, “A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why,” in which 86% of teachers said that reducing would a "very effective" way to improve the quality of instruction, far above increasing salaries, more professional development or any other method cited.)

Of course, to see if Gates' idea really merits consideration, a pilot at some of the nation's private schools, like Sidwell Friends, where Sasha and Malia Obama attend, might be in order. According to Sidwell's website,

All classes, with the exception of one third grade and one fourth grade, have team teachers. Individual class sizes range from one teacher for every ten students in the lower grades to one teacher for every 16 students in some fourth grade classes.

And at the high school level?

Classes, which have an average of 14 to 16 students, are informal and are conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The small class size permits individual attention, group discussion, and close interaction between students and teachers.

If children from the nation's most elite families can reap the myriad benefits of smaller class sizes, why not students from low income backgrounds? And, since students attending schools in low income areas usually have fewer resources, and less access to social capital than kids enrolled in private schools, lower class sizes might even be more important for them.

Of course, no one thinks it's OK for students to spend a year in the classroom of a teacher who's not getting it done, but just because a great teacher's getting results with 30 students doesn't mean she can get the same outcomes with 35 or 40. And, even if a teacher works her tail off to make sure her students achieve, at some point an education version of the law of diminishing returns is going to kick in.

Those diminishing returns might include even greater amounts of teacher turnover—half already leave the profession within five years—due to burnout. To those who've never worked full-time in a classroom, five or ten extra students might not seem like a lot of extra work, but it is, and our nation's teachers already do more with less.

Gates is right that a lower class size doesn't automatically guarantee that student achievement will take place, but the further gutting of public education, and the need for districts to save money, shouldn't drive long-term policy decisions about what's best for kids. 

photo (cc) via Wikimedia Commons