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Education Reporter

A Class-ic Mistake 
By David W. Kirkpatrick

Periodically, public education is seized by a fad whether or not the fad has any real effect. One such fad is reducing class size to some arbitrary number.

Let it first be acknowledged that class size does make a difference. But that difference depends on many variables, including grade level, the types of students, the subject matter, the skills of the teacher, the teaching method, etc.

Under former Gov. Pete Wilson, California mandated smal-ler class sizes in some grades. An initial cost of $1.5 billion has now grown to $4 billion, resulting in a mad scramble to find teachers and classroom space. Even child-care centers and libraries were converted to classrooms, hardly a net gain. Peter Jennings on ABC-TV's "World News Tonight," Feb. 17, 1998, reported that 21,000 noncertified teachers were hired. Jennings also cited a school district that reduced class size only to have student achievement go down, and another did not do so because eight new teachers and eight new classrooms would cost more than $1,000,000, money the district did not have.

A little historic perspective might be helpful. On May 19, 1806, the Free School Society opened its first school, adopting the Lancasterian (or monitorial) system developed in England, whereby one teach-er, using student monitors, was placed in charge of a school of 1,000 students.

By the 1860s, the public school system had smaller classes, although one New York City teacher had a class of 269 pupils and another had 162. The superintendent said classes of 60 students or more were acceptable but they should not exceed 100 students. It was common for even a young female teacher just out of grammar school to be given a class of nearly 100 six- and seven-year-olds.

A generation ago, then-Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan cited a study by James C. Coleman which concluded that class size, by itself, is unimportant. Moynihan commented that this was consistent with findings over the previous 40 years.

Students in other nations are commonly in larger classes. The children of the "boat people" from Vietnam in the 1970s performed very well in our public schools, scoring, for example, in the 95th percentile in mathematics. Yet in Vietnam they had been in schools where the average class size was 75. Japanese high school classes typically have 50 students. A Chinese immigrant, who is a computer scientist in Maryland, has said her classes in China typically had 50-60 students. South Korea's students ranked first in math among 20 nations, yet the average class size there is 43 students.

Oddly enough, the argument that clas-ses are too large has intensified at the same time that the student-teacher ratio and average class size have declined. The average dropped from about 37 students per teacher in 1900 to 27 in 1955 to 18 in 1986. Today, the ratio is about 17 students per teacher.

Eric Hanushek, former chairman of the Economics Department at the University of Rochester, looked at 152 class size studies. He found that only 14 - less than 1 in 10 - reported positive relationships with smaller class sizes. About an equal number showed negative results, while most showed no significant difference either way.

Assume that reducing classes to 15 in the first two grades would bring gains in achievement of 14%, as one study suggests. To reduce the current average of about 25 students per class to 15 means that there must be five teachers and five classrooms for every 75 students, compared to the present three of each. Such a class size reduction means a cost increase of 67%, nearly five times the increase in achievement.

What does a 14% gain mean? If students rank in the 35th percentile as a group, for example, a 14% gain, or one-seventh, would move them, at great expense, from the 35th to the 42nd percentile, still well below average.

Furthermore, class size is almost invariably discussed in terms of classes being too big. But many classes are too small. Enlarging those classes could save more money that could be spent where smaller classes could be proven useful.

During World War II, the U.S. Army taught typing in rooms so large that the instructors - non-certified soldier-teachers - used microphones, and students listened on headphones. This worked because typing is a mechanical skill requiring only repetition until it becomes a habit.

Not only could a public school do this, at least one has. During the 1960s, a Melbourne, Florida high school adopted this methodology. One typing teacher had 125 students per class, five classes per day, for a daily student-load of 625. Principal B. Frank Brown said, "The surprising thing is that we never thought of this before." Few other high schools have thought of it yet.

Here's another example that should be obvious but is similarly overlooked. The most common teaching method to this day is the lecture. A high school teacher may have six classes per day of 25 students (I used to have about 33). Presenting a lecture multiple times, once to each class, is highly inefficient. Would it not be better for the teacher to give the lecture once to 150 students as a group, leaving five periods available for other subjects?

Finally, even if the money is available, to spend billions of dollars on an ineffective fad such as arbitrary class sizes, consumes funds that could be better used where there are demonstrated needs or more efficient options.

The fact that people believe something doesn't make it true. If it did, the world would be flat.

David W. Kirkpatrick, a retired public school history teacher, is Senior Education Fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC. An education researcher and writer, he currently emails his original writings to individuals and groups throughout the U.S. and 12 other nations.

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