Reduced Class Size: An Inefficiency in School Improvement

I got a chance to chat with with a successful former Yahoo! manager the other day at a VC in Palo Alto; the discussion focused almost exclusively on school improvement at the k12 level.  Of particular energy was our conversation on class size.  My perspective, confirming Dan Meyer, is that class size is more or less besides the point and not worth pondering too much as a school improvement tool; but worth pondering, no actualy highly concerning to me, is that the movement to push down class size is probably the most inefficient, least cost-effective way to improve our schools.  To boot, the backbone of the movement is based on controversial and misappropriated research that kind of resembles Mortgage Backed Securities (it’s meta-analysis of less than scientific studies, like divvying up the findings of so many research projects that even the authors can’t keep track of where their data comes from or what’s in it).

No, actually, I can think of an equally inefficient use of money: one-to-one computing and the One-Smart-Board-per-classroom movement.  But, back to class size.

Smaller class sizes show a correlation with increases in performance, sure.  But it’s teachers 1) having control over the classroom and 2) building relationships with students that are behind the performance increases.  There are simply more cost effective ways to achieve these same elements of a good education.

My major thesis about class size is that it totally depends on the point in the lesson cycle the students are in.  Students benefit from effective, relevant delivery – but this could happen in groups of hundreds, through a textbook or through programs like Sesame Street.  Students benefit from rigorous, diverse, and differentiated activity – but this can happen in small groups and independently as long as there is focus and guidance.  Students benefit from cooperative, creative activities with analytical problem solving – but that’s more likely to happen in the performing arts.  And students benefit from formative assessment, re-teaching, and performance and content evaluation – but this can happen with a combination of an adaptive learning environment, a learning journal, and a college-student grader.

Really now, I think the conversations in education should move away from expensive diamond-studded, silver-bullet ideologies (based on opinionated research) and move towards outside-of-the-box, common-sense thinking.  Is that too much to ask?

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