Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Class Size: Where Belief Trumps Reality

See also earlier posts on this blog here and here and here

Class size can make a difference, based on many variables but perhaps no belief is so expensive or contrary to the facts than that which maintains smaller classes, as determined by some arbitrary number, is beneficial to students. It is to be expected educators will harbor this view because, whatever the impact on students, clearly a teacher with, say, fifteen students per class has less responsibility than one with thirty. But members of the general public, especially parents of school students stubbornly maintain this view, contrary to history, research findings, and current experience.

Those who, such as this writer has done from time to time over the years, take a contrary view are not merely swimming upstream but they are facing upstream while the current rushes them the other way. Nonetheless, let's try this one more time. First, some history.

Class size has been regularly reduced over the years, and is currently smaller than ever. For example, early in the nineteenth century, under the Lancasterian system, a teacher might be responsible for a class of 1000 or more. They handled it by using students as assistants. In New York City schools at the time of the Civil War, relatively untrained young women teachers had classes with as many as 150 students. Even the superintendent agreed that was unreasonable, that no teacher should have more than 100 students per class.

When this writer began teaching in a public high school more than 45 years ago, the school had an 8-period teaching day. Teachers typically had six classes, one period of nonteaching duty, and one free period daily. During the six teaching periods classes commonly had 30-35 students each, giving the teacher a daily student load of 175-200+ students. Interestingly, although he was for several years president of the local teachers' association, class size rarely came up for discussion. Today's classes are typically about 25 students and, as we'll see, often mandated to be fewer, yet class size is a constant complaint.

If smaller classes are a guarantee of better education, why hasn't it happened? Does anyone maintain that public education in New York City today , with many classes of 25 students, and none with 150, is five or six times more effective than was true with the 150 or so in the 1860s?

Then there is research. A decade ago, Eric Hanushek at the University of Rochester reviewed more than 300 studies of class size. Almost without exception they concluded it made no difference. The few positive findings were so minor as to be insignificant. And they were counterbalanced by a few that found negative results - that is, as class size went down so did student achievement. Of course educators quote the few with any good news for them, without noting they are the exceptions and the gains are almost nonexistent.

Then there is the classic current experience in California which ten years ago by a statewide law mandated maximum class size in grades 1-3 (later adding 4th grade) of 20. This cost an additional $1.5 billion the first year. Ten years later more than $15 billion additional has been spent chasing this moonbeam, with miserable results. Even ignoring such frauds as reported in the March 31 Los Angeles Times of a district that "created phantom classes to pull the wool over state officials' eyes," the paper concluded that "There is still no evidence that the multibillion-dollar investment in small primary classes has made more than an incremental difference." Talk about waste! After ten years you would think citizens, particularly irate taxpayers, would be demanding that it's time to give it up. But, no. The program is still popular.

If they continue to defend this obvious failure at least they could stop complaining about school taxes. But don't expect that. This is not a system based on sound research or experience. What is done is done because that's how it is done. But if we insist upon ignoring what research suggests is the way to go, at least we should not do what research suggests doesn't work and, most of all, stop doing those things what clearly do not work.

Don't expect that either. The establishment only demands research findings when they don't like a proposal. They ignore it if it exists; and seek to prevent research if it's lacking. Yet they implement their proposals on class size, bilingualism, whole language teaching, school-to-work, etc., on as wide a basis as possible without research or ignoring hundreds of studies - on building size, certification, etc. -contrary to their views.


School tests: a little bit of stress is good for you

The only thing worse than the UK government's conveyor-belt testing of schoolkids is the anti-testing argument that says exams are evil and children 'can't cope'

There is no need to have one day each year when the `nation's 11-year-olds' are reduced to `a state of panic', argued Keith Bartley, chief executive of the UK General Teaching Council (GTC), last week. SATs tests, he said, must go. SATs, or Standard Assessment Tasks, are carried out when children are seven, 11 and 14 years old, in order to test students' grip of the national curriculum at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. The results of the tests are used as the basis for school league tables, which show parents and others how a school is performing overall. SATs - along with GCSEs and AS levels - have been under scrutiny for some time. Teachers have been accused of `teaching to test' (focusing on the achievement of `targets' during the examination period to the detriment of encouraging real understanding); `drilling to test' (exerting too much pressure on kids to pass); and even `fiddling tests' (in order to make their school's performance look better on paper). Now, however, the focus has shifted on to the stress and panic that SATs apparently provoke in young people.

`England's pupils are among the most frequently tested in the world', the GTC's Bartley said in an interview with the Observer last Sunday. Apparently, a typical British school pupil will sit 70 tests during his or her time at school, starting in Year 2 and continuing (at the discretion of individual schools) every year thereafter, until they reach Year 10 and begin preparing for their GCSE exams.

Talking to the BBC, John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: `There are all sorts of malign effects from the current testing regime. There is enormous pressure on youngsters and there's a lot of training to take the tests.' Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education, agrees. She says her party has `called for tests to be scrapped for years'. Psychologists, meanwhile, report that they are now `going into schools at unprecedented rates to tackle exam stress, with children as young as six suffering anxiety' (1). `All are affected by the anxiety transmitted by their teachers', said Martin Johnson of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

There are plenty of reasons to attack the culture of testing in schools - but stress isn't one of them. Government testing schemes are part of an educational climate in which teachers are no longer trusted to get on with their jobs. And that is the basis on which the GTC should attack SATs. Teachers should have autonomy in their own classrooms, to teach their pupils unfettered by the educational vogue of the month; to enthuse pupils with their own idiosyncratic love of a subject; and, yes, to set tests in order to monitor children's progress, but when they feel that it is necessary and in an independent way that allows the teacher to tap into the class's abilities.

By contrast, the targets set by the government are often arbitrary. The authorities' externally-imposed tests on all children from seven to 14 come across like abstract hoops that both teachers and children must jump through. These tests bear little relation to actual understanding or enjoyment of a subject. Instead, they are a means of ticking a box to show that each child has achieved the same bland level of rudimentary skills, and thus they can stifle passion, flair and originality in the classroom.

To its credit, the GTC has made some of these points about the `testing culture' - but by choosing to focus mainly on the alleged stress and panic caused by exams it has actually undermined the idea of testing per se. In this sense, its criticisms of SATs, alongside the criticisms made by others, are not a great improvement on the government's testing culture, since they communicate the idea that examination itself is problematic: too elitist; too judgemental; too stressful.

Since New Labour swept to power in 1997, there has been a permanent revolution in education. Every minute facet of education has been held up to the light and found wanting - but no coherent idea of what education should consist of has been put forward. Instead of challenging the degradation of education at the hands of the Blairites - of which the constant government roll-call of ever-changing targets is a symptom - the GTC has seized on a trendy issue: stress. The union doesn't point out how teachers are now regarded, at best, as an impediment to a child's osmosis-like learning and must therefore be monitored closely; instead it claims that the very nature of testing is iniquitous, which it isn't.

Indeed, far from questioning the government's insatiable thirst for statistics, the GTC puts forward its own version of targets, targets, targets. It proposes that a system of `cohort sampling' should replace the current SATs system. Under this scheme, less than one per cent of primary school children and less than three per cent of secondary students would take national tests. The samples would be selected randomly and tested to see how the school overall is performing. `You do not have to test every child every four years to know whether children are making more or less progress than they used to', Bartley said, somewhat ridiculously inferring that the nation's children will progress as one through the education system, and that a one to three per cent sample is perfectly representative of all their collective achievements. And what will `cohort sampling' mean for the little `stressed-out' martyrs selected to take on all the exam stress of the exam-free 97 to 99 per cent of the kids? Six-year-old hara-kiri? Bartley doesn't hypothesise.

Tests for young children and teenagers can be a good thing - when set by teachers and schools rather than imposed from on high. They can sharpen the brain. There's nothing like a bit of independent cramming to ram a principle home - and once principles are rammed home they can be applied throughout a subject, aiding understanding. What would be the point of learning French, for example, if you didn't have to go through all that dull stuff about grammar and vocabulary? (Which simply has to be learned in a laborious, repetitive way; that is, it has to be `drilled' home. And nothing will make a pupil learn better than the threat of a test to pass or fail.) Yet the GTC seems to have absorbed the idea that testing is essentially elitist and bad, and that the worst thing a child can do is fail. In truth, the worst thing for education is the demonisation and fetishisation of its disparate elements: exams are this week's bogeyman; next week it will be something else.

The idea of a classical, liberal education must be reclaimed: an education where teaching is thorough and where free ideas circulate, unbridled by government diktat. A first step to this will be allowing teachers to claw back their independence: and that means allowing them to set their own tests, as a way of aiding a class's learning, as and when they please.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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