Saturday, March 12, 2011

Again, that class size thing . . .

In the March 8th Seattle Times, Danny Westneat had an interesting column on class size titled, Bill Gates, have I got a deal for you! The column is a response to Gates presentation at the National Governors Association’s 2011 winter conference.

In his presentation, Gates called for increased class sizes for a school’s most effective teachers and fewer kids for less effective teachers who will then receive professional development. The most effective would also receive additional compensation. The net result would be saving money as there would be a decrease in the number of teachers needed to meet class size requirements. In many states class size requirements are determined at the state level through legislative action not as we do in Washington through bargaining at the local level. In this New York Times article we see how the current economy is forcing states to change these limits.

Now to the Westneat article. He takes exception to the use of the Gates Foundation research to support the recommendation to increase class size and that teachers would be happy with more students for more pay.

I looked up that study, done at the UW in 2008, and what it actually says is teachers prefer a $5,000 pay boost to having two fewer students. They weren't ever asked about more students.

In an amusing way he then proposes an experiment with class size in his 8-year-old child’s school and the private school attended by Gates 8-year-old.

Bill, here's an experiment. You and I both have an 8-year-old. Let's take your school and double its class sizes, from 16 to 32. We'll use the extra money generated by that — a whopping $400,000 more per year per classroom — to halve the class sizes, from 32 to 16, at my public high school, Garfield.

In 2020, when our kids are graduating, we'll compare what effect it all had. On student achievement. On teaching quality. On morale. Or that best thing of all, the "environment that promotes relationships between teachers and students."

An interesting proposal with, as Westneat notes, no chance of being accepted. The argument over class size has been ongoing and problematic as you can find research to support your position, whatever that might be. In this New York Times article I learned more about the Tennessee study done in the 1980’s that I have used at times to suggest if we can’t reduce it to 13to 17 students we will not see significant change in achievement results. The study was the result of a seventh grade teacher persuading the Tennessee legislature to finance a study comparing class sizes.

In the 1980s, Ms. Bain persuaded Tennessee lawmakers to finance a study comparing classes of 13 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade with classes of 22 to 25 students. The smaller classes significantly outscored the larger classes on achievement tests.

On the other hand, how can you disagree with what this North Carolina teacher said in the same article, something repeated many times over by teachers much closer to home.

“They say it doesn’t affect whether kids get what they need, but I completely disagree,” Ms. Maher said. “If you’ve gained five kids, that’s five more papers to grade, five more kids who need makeup work if they’re absent, five more parents to contact, five more e-mails to answer. It gets overwhelming.”

Changes are coming to school systems in our state with the legislative cuts this year to K-4 staffing ratios and the same proposed cuts in the budget currently being developed for the following two years. This amounts to about 12 teaching positions in our school district. So, class sizes will go up across the country including in the state of Washington because of the current economic situation and not because of research findings. At some point we need to say enough. Yes, we must be held to high standards and yes, we must prepare young people for post high school success in learning and work. But, cutting revenue and increasing class size is not going to support this work or achieve these results.

If you have time and want to peruse some other responses to the proposal put forth by Gates in this Washington Post op-ed piece, check out this post from Larry Ferlazzo. Please know that Ferlazzo is not a Gates supporter.

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