Mysterious World of Education Reporting…Continued!

Another day, another baffling front-page New York Times education story. Reporter Sam Dillon tells us that “since the 1980s, teachers and many educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.” But not until the 21st paragraph does he note that teachers and many educators may in fact be wrong on this point.

And in fact the biggest experimental study on class size reduction, in which 10,000 kids were randomly assigned to different-sized classes, found something far more nuanced than he suggests.

Andrew Rotherham did an excellent job explaining the class-size myth in Time last week:

What that research tells us is this: Smaller classes are better, but only if the teacher is a very good one. In other words, class size matters, but teacher effectiveness matters more. That means that as a parent, you’re better off with 28, 30, or maybe even more kids and a great teacher, than 24 or 22 and a mediocre one.

What’s more, to really make a difference smaller must mean much smaller. Fewer than 16, for instance. Even then the benefits are greatest in the early grades and for at-risk youngsters. Meanwhile, class size reduction is very expensive, so it doesn’t always work from a cost/benefit analysis relative to other choices schools can make with scarce dollars.

As is too often the case in education, that research is almost completely at odds with current practice. Instead of lowering class size a lot for the students who most need it, school districts generally lower it a little for everyone.

Understanding this complexity has never been more urgent, given that many districts are currently laying off teachers without regard to quality—and boosting class sizes for the teachers who remain. We need the Times to explain this complexity—even if it runs counter to what education reporters and their sources have long believed.

Round and round we go…

EducationAmanda Ripley