Cc: The National Science, Kaplan, Smith Richardson and Broad foundations.
Dear President Gilpin Faust:
I applaud your efforts to reduce class size, which according to the AP, led to Harvard regaining the top spot in the recent US News and World report. According to US News, 75% of Harvard’s undergraduate classes now have fewer than 20 students
At the same time, I want to protest Harvard’s participation, and that of the other foundations copied on this email, in financing the large-scale experiments in
Roland Fryer, the Harvard professor and author of this experiment, as well as the experiment in NYC schools which gives up to $500 to middle school students who have high test scores and provides them with free minutes on their cellphones, claims that “Surveys of students and parents show support for the concept.”
To the contrary, our survey of over 1,000 NYC parents showed that over 70% strongly opposed paying students for good scores. Another survey done by EdWeek showed that an overwhelming majority (81%) of respondents were against schools offering cash rewards to students.
These views would matter less if the research indicated that such programs were likely to be successful. A similar NYC program that paid $2 million to reward students for high AP scores led to fewer students actually passing the exam. Numerous studies show that in the long run, cash rewards undermine the intrinsic satisfaction that otherwise results from positive behavior. This particular scheme is also likely to lead to increased economic disparities and resentment between those students who would do well in any case, and others who simply need more academic help and support.
Moreover, there are far more effective strategies to enhance student engagement and learning, particularly among low-achievers and in high-need schools. Many studies show that providing smaller classes narrows the achievement gap and creates more student engagement and focused learning in the middle and upper grades. See this recent study by Thomas Dee of Swarthmore and Martin West of Harvard, showing that smaller classes in 8th grade are associated with significantly higher levels of student engagement and eventual earnings, with the expected benefit from reducing class size in urban schools nearly twice the estimated cost.
Prof. Peter Blatchford also recently released a detailed observational report, showing that when secondary students are place in smaller classes, much greater time is spent “on task” and focused on learning, with special benefits for low-achievers and twice as much negative behavior per student exhibited in large classes than in small.
Clearly, Harvard believes in the importance of smaller classes for its own students, having devoted considerable resources to reducing class size, and limiting the size of freshman seminars to 12 students or less.
Yet despite the abundant evidence, urban and minority students tend to be placed classes much larger than this. Indeed, more than 70% of middle school students in NYC are in classes of 26 students or more, and about 40% of eighth graders crammed into classes of thirty or more.
I urge Harvard, the National Science Foundation, and the other foundations that are supporting these large-scale experiments to instead shift their considerable resources towards research on the multiple benefits of smaller classes, and towards the effort to provide the same sort of individualized attention to public schools students that are currently enjoyed by students at our more elite private institutions.
I also hope that you make sure that the results of any experiments you help finance are fully evaluated by a completely independent investigator, not by the author of the experiment himself, and examine the long run as well as the short run effects.
Class Size Matters
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