Sunday, March 30, 2008


I note that GOS did not like the references I gave in my last mention of this subject so I thought I might mention a few research findings here just to brighten his day. I initially below re-run an article I posted here last year. Then I reproduce a second, recent, article from Britain.

Note that this report dates from 1985. It has been known for a LONG time that smaller class sizes are for the convenience of the teachers rather than for the benefit of the students.

Note also that I spent most of my working life teaching so I have nothing against teachers as such. They are on the whole a very Bolshie lot, however, and many seem never to be satisfied. Some of them are even grumpy old sods!

1). 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.


2). Class size isn't everything

Why teachers may be wrong about this class issue

"Strike threat over class sizes" is a familiar Easter headline as the teachers' unions hold their annual conferences. This year was no exception, with the National Union of Teachers demanding legislation to set a maximum limit of 20 pupils per class and delegates describing large state-school classes as a "national scandal". Their indignation acquired an extra edge when Jim Knight, the schools minister, told another union conference that classes could work well with as many as 70 pupils, provided there are sufficient teachers' assistants around.

Unfortunately for the NUT, research provides little evidence in favour of small classes. The best that can be said is that they lead to significant gains in academic test scores for pupils in the very early years of schooling, particularly if they are disadvantaged. But among children in Year 3 and upwards, class size has no measurable effect on literacy and numeracy levels. These results emerge from large-scale American studies as well as a current project at the London University Institute of Education.

The usual explanation - that schools put the less able and less well-behaved children in smaller classes - is exploded by the most recent research, which takes account of such factors as prior attainment and home background.

It is all monstrously counter-intuitive. All over the world, politicians promise smaller classes as a token of their commitment to education. Despite their outstanding past results in subjects such as maths, east Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have policies to reduce class sizes. Here, parents pay thousands of pounds to fee-charging schools, where primary-age classes have 10.7 pupils on average, against 26.2 in the state sector. Given that teachers' salaries account for the lion's share of any school's costs, parents are being overcharged, if the research is correct, by something like 100 per cent. Can everybody be mad? It is surely common sense that children in small classes, whatever their age, ability and background, will get more of the teacher's attention and therefore learn more.

In fact, research proves at least part of the common sense. The latest findings from the Institute of Education project, presented to the American Educational Research Association this month, found that the larger the class, the less the pupils concentrated on their work (or engaged in "on-task behaviour", to use the jargon). This was particularly true of low attainers in secondary schools who, in a class of 30, spent twice as much time off-task as they did in a class of 15. However, class size had no effect at all on medium and high attainers in secondary school. And for children older than six, the research remains clear: the effects of small classes on test scores are nil, zero, zilch.

How do we explain it? The "progressive" lobby in education would argue that teachers do not sufficiently adapt their teaching to take advantage of small classes. They may, for example, still spend most of their time addressing the class as a whole and fail to use the greater opportunities to give individual attention. They may even use less small-group work because the class as a whole is easier to control. The "traditionalists" would argue that, on the contrary, teachers adapt their methods too much. Given a small class, they drop whole-class teaching, which, regardless of numbers, is the most effective method of instruction.

Another possibility is that, leaving aside the first year or so of primary school, the academic benefits of small classes kick in only when the pupil numbers drop well below 20, and perhaps below 15, as they do in the fee-charging sector. Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, argues that most teachers can't do anything in a class of 20 that they couldn't do in a class of 26. The individual attention they can give to children is still limited. The difference to the Treasury, however, is enormous, because the class of 20 entails an increase in teacher costs of more than 25 per cent. There are, Wiliam argues, more cost-effective ways of using public money.

To my surprise, I find myself in sympathy with Jim Knight. He is not the first minister to suggest that, with the growth of computer-aided learning and the advent of teachers' assistants, it is absurd to talk of "class size" at all. Margaret Hodge, then chairing the Commons education select committee, put forward a similar argument in the New Statesman ten years ago. There may be some occasions, in secondary schools at any rate, when children manage perfectly well in groups of 75; others where they should get half an hour of individual tuition.

Small classes serve as a convenient slogan for unions and politicians, because they are easily understood and accepted by the public as self-evidently a good thing. It is time we moved beyond them and thought more creatively about how we use educational resources.


"Women's studies" dies in Britain

Women's studies, which came to prominence in the wake of the 1960s feminist movement, is to vanish from British universities as an undergraduate degree this summer. Dwindling interest in the subject means that the final 12 students will graduate with a BA in women's studies from London's Metropolitan University in July.

Universities offering the course, devised as the second wave of the women's rights movement peaked, attracted students in their hundreds during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the mood on campuses has changed. Students, it seems, no longer want to immerse themselves in the sisterhood's struggle for equality or the finer points of feminist history.

The disappearance of a course that women academics fought so long and hard to have taught in universities has divided opinion on what this means for feminism. Is it irrelevant in today's world or has the quest for equality hit the mainstream? The course's critics argue that women's studies became its own worst enemy, remaining trapped in the feminist movement of the 1970s while women and society moved on. "Feminist scholarship has become predictable, tiresome and dreary, and most young women avoid it like the plague," said Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for public policy research in Washington and author of Who Stole Feminism? "British and American societies are no longer patriarchal and oppressive 'male hegemonies'. But most women's studies departments are predicated on the assumption that women in the West are under siege. What nonsense."

Others believe young women have shied away from studying feminist theory because they would rather opt for degrees that more obviously lead to jobs, especially since the introduction of tuition fees. "[Taking] women's studies as a separate course may not feel as relevant to women who go to university to help them enter the job market," said Jean Edelstein, an author and journalist. "As the feminist movement has become increasingly associated with extreme thoughts, women who may have previously been interested in women's studies may be deterred by these overtones."

Anyone ruing the degree's demise can take heart: many gender and equality issues are now dealt with by mainstream courses, from sociology and law to history and English. And many universities, including Oxford, still offer the course to postgraduates. Mary Evans, visiting fellow at the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, said: "This final closure does not signal the end of an era: feminist ideas and literature are as lively as ever, but the institutional framework in which they are taught has changed." Ms Edelstein added: "Feminist critique should be studied by everyone. If integration into more mainstream courses means more people looking at gender theory and increases the number of people who are aware of the issues, then that is a good thing."

But Dr Irene Gedalof, who has led the London Metropolitan University women's studies course for the past 10 years, defended the discipline. "The women's movement is less visible now and many of its gains are taken for granted, which fuels the perception there is no longer a need for women's studies. But while other disciplines now 'deal' with gender issues we still need a dedicated focus by academics. Despite the gains women have made, this is just as relevant in today's world," she said, blaming the course's downfall on universities' collective failure to promote the discipline.

Given that graduate courses in women's studies are thriving in many countries, such as India and Iran, the decision to stop the course here has surprised many. Baroness Haleh Afshar, professor in politics and women's studies at the University of York, said: "In the past quarter of a century, women's studies scholars have been at the forefront of new and powerful work that has placed women at the centre but has also had echoes right across academia. In particular, it is important to note the pioneering work of Sue Lees, which began at the Metropolitan and still has a long way to go. I am desolate to see that the university has decided to close it."


No comments: