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Monday, December 8, 2008

From Hendrik Hertzberg: Size Matters!

As Hertzberg, the political editor of the New Yorker, points out in his blog:

In the Times this morning, David Brooks writes:

As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.

I have to go with the teachers’ unions (boo!) and the Ed School establishment (hiss!) on this one.

Short of abolishing the whole crazy system of local school boards financed by local property taxes and replacing it with an all-powerful national Ministry of Education financed by the federal income tax, I’ve always believed that the best feasible “educational reform” is, precisely, smaller class sizes.

This is not hard to understand. Every teacher and every student knows that the smaller the class, the better the learning environment. Each kid gets more attention. Discipline and control are far easier to achieve. Disruptive kids have less scope for mischief. Teachers are happier and more likely to stay in the profession.

Moreover, class size is incredibly easy to measure. By contrast, measuring things like which teachers are good is extremely problematic...

Anyway, read the whole thing….Hertzberg clearly gets it. Anyone who, like Brooks, argues that class size reduction is a “superficial” reform has never taught

In contrast, the policies promoted by the so-called “accountability” camp, including more charter schools, Teach for America recruits, and even merit pay, are “band-aid” solutions that do not reach the heart of the matter – which is how to improve the conditions so that students are able to learn and teachers can teach.

The need for smaller classes is especially evident in our large urban school districts, where classes tend to be far more overcrowded than elite private schools or wealthier suburban districts. It is a shame that Klein and Rhee, who endlessly drone about “equity,” do not recognize the need for equity in this most basic area.


Ceolaf said...

I agree with most of what Hertzberg writes in this except, but still diagree with his conclusion.

First, my single disagreement with his description of the reform. He calls it "feasible," but I don't think that is true. It calls for dramatically more teachers, which we don't have. Perhaps smaller classes would lead to slowing the loss of the teachers from the classroom, but implementation of this reform requires additional teachers BEFORE the reform itself has a chance to take effect. More importantly, the reform requires many more classrooms, which are enormously expensive and time-consuming to create. I remained unconvinced that it is feasible.

His listing of the advantages of this reform is hard to argue with: better learning environment, more teacher attention for each kid, discipline and control are far easier to achieve, disruptive kids have less scope for mischief, teachers are happier and more likely to stay in the profession. (Most of that is a word for word quote.)

And he is right that it is relatively easy to measure. (Though there have long been some pretty problems with getting it right. For example, when I taught, I was given a class roster with more than 40 students on it, but was correctly told that no more than 20 of them would show up even once. How do we count that?)

The problem is that class size is an input, not an outcome. We've been measuring inputs for a long time, and the current paradigm is to measure outputs. Isn't the goal better educational outcomes?

The current achievement tests that we use as proxies for meaningful educational outcomes are horrendous and subject to manipulation. I am no fan of them. I am even doubtful that any standardized multiple choice tests can meaningfully capture educational outcomes -- though the AP exams give me hope. Don't think that I defend our current so-called accoutability system.

However, while there is some very good evidence that dramatic class size reduction at the lowest grades (i.e. k-2) improves short term educational outcomes, there is no evidence in middle or high schools, nor is there evidence of the sustainability of the gains made from early intervention.

At the end of the day, we all want better long term educational outcomes, right? We can agree on that, right?

Well, I challenge this blog to define those outcomes and to find evidence that this particular reform makes them more likely.

Leonie Haimson said...

There is plenty of evidence that smaller classes in the middle and upper grades leads to higher achievement and lower dropout rates; I call your attention to my fact sheet here:

three studies are esp. impressive --

Donald McLaughlin and Gili Drori, “School-Level Correlates of Academic Achievement: Student Assessment Scores in SASS Public Schools.”

Thomas Dee and Martin West, “The Non-cognitive returns to class size,” National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2008;

Peter Blatchford, “Do low attaining and younger students benefit most from small classes? Results from a systematic observation study of class size effects on pupil classroom engagement and teacher pupil interaction”, presented to the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting 2008, posted at

Leonie Haimson said...

I see that the URLS don't come out on the page; check out the benefits page on -- the fact sheet on the middle and upper grades -- and the research and links page.