Wealthy Amateur Advises Decision-makers about Class Size

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Here is Bill Gates’ latest advice to policymakers:

” [G]et more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could be then used to give the top teachers a raise…. The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

If a parent or even a superintendent went to a district school board and recommended what Bill Gates did, they would call for an immediate psychological evaluation over his suggesting larger, not smaller, classes. In linking teacher pay to larger classes, the premier philanthropist, our “rich amateur” –who, after spending over two billion on small high schools, said in 2009, Oops! I erred–now advises policymakers to question the pricey strategy of reducing class size to raise test scores. At a time when professional judgments about what should happen in schools and classrooms get questioned daily, even wealthy donors make amateurish recommendations.

Where exactly does the amateurism show in Gates’ advice? Many studies that show high correlations between reduced class size and academic achievement have 15-20 students in a class. Other studies (see, for example, FinnAchilles PDF) reinforce these findings in smaller classes with largely low income and minority children particularly when those children have a string of “effective’ teachers. I do not quarrel with these studies, although others have (see class size debate.full volume). What I question vigorously is the assumption that simply having a succession of “effective” teachers somehow resolves the conundrum of class size and academic achievement. Policymakers identify “effective teachers–the current horse that Bill Gates is riding–puts them into larger classes and, voila!, scores rise.

One catch, however. The black box of the classroom remains hidden as to how exactly class size and teachers interact. For the fact is that small class size permits certain opportunities to arise that smart and savvy teachers can use to engage students–the key factor in student learning (see David K.Cohen ResourcesEEPA2003). But it is more than teachers teaching.

Bill Gates should surely know that classroom learning depends not only upon the teacher but also on how, in which ways, and when a teacher interacts with the students over content/skills. A Venn diagram show how the teacher, students, and curriculum interact. You need all three because they create a pattern that produces a new element: learning.

Add more students–as Gates recommends-and somehow those teachers identified as effective will be just as terrific with more students than he or she was before. Absent from Gates’ advice is how students would react to larger classes and how the teacher responds to larger classes in teaching content and skills. Gates ignores that the pattern producing learning is disrupted, the interdependence is missing.

First-rank researchers have pointed out for years that reduced class size, even when it falls below 20, is no panacea. “Class size,” Gene Glass said in 1982, “has no magical … effect on student achievement. Instead, it influences what the teacher does, his or her manner with the students, and what the students themselves do or are allowed to do. These differences in classroom process in turn influence outcome measures like student achievement” (cited in Cohen PDF above, p. 129).

More students in classes, however, because of the interdependence of teachers, students, and subject matter will mean that some teachers, including those “effective” ones, may get overwhelmed, others may begin using managerial approaches that better fit larger classes and  more work to be read and graded and demand attention.

Listen to a veteran teacher estimate the impact of Gates’s advice on his daily work.

“[O]ne problem with the size of my Advanced Placement classes and my total number of … students is how little time I can give to each student’s writing.  Remember those 112 AP students [I have].  If I give one written assignment that they all turn in, and it takes me only 3 minutes per paper to read, correct and advise per paper, that is 336 minutes for one set of papers.  That is more than 5.5 hours of time outside of school to correct one set of papers.  Increasing class sizes in secondary schools means that teachers lose the ability to work as effectively in helping students to write better.”

Based on my classroom experience, I would concur.  Amateur Bill Gates disagrees but he has the bucks.



Filed under how teachers teach

8 responses to “Wealthy Amateur Advises Decision-makers about Class Size

  1. raux rawl

    just send threads

  2. Bob Valiant, Jr.

    Unfortunately, none of this is about improving instruction. Keep your eye on the ball: all school reform is about DECREASING THE COST OF INSTRUCTION. Period.

    All the rest is a CONfidence game. Good King Bill, Good Queen Oprah, Good King Arnie, Good Queen Michelle, etc. are masters at this game.

  3. Bill Gates has too much money. Everyone seems to forget that he got to be the richest guy in the world by ruthlessly and illegally crushing his competition. And now he’s doing the same thing as a “philanthropist.” It truth, he’s still just a ruthless robber baron who knows nothing about health or education.

  4. JustaCommenter

    I’m hardly swayed by arguments that various assertions about education are unproven — so many factors are involved, only the most basic assertions can be proved. How you can criticize lack of scientific consensus, and then turn around and support your own arguments with the estimate of “one experienced teacher” is beyond me. Certainly, the issue of optimal class size is not settled one way or another.

    At least Gates is spending is money on education — both in trying new approaches, and in studies analyzing the effectiveness of different approaches.

    Just look at comment 2 for motivation to take a deep breathe and re-evaluate knee-jerk criticism of these efforts. Bob Valiant can explain how a billionaire spending his entire life’s savings on education and health problems, is really interested in shaving a couple % of the income tax he no longer has to pay (since he is retired and living off his accumulated wealth).

    Frankly, and furthermore, to the average person decreasing the cost of a good or service is generally a good thing. Technological advance is all about being able to do more good with less effort and less cost.

    Pigeon hole everything into simply “more cost” or “less cost” leaves you with an pathetic world view. On the one hand you are supporting raising teacher salaries 100%, cutting class sizes in half, pouring money into any technology or program. On the other hand, you are just firing teachers indiscriminately, reducing standards, closing schools, increasing class sizes. Really the question should never be just more or less cost.

    Given the research put into it and the balanced approach Gates has taken, singling him for this makes no sense. Whether you agree with it or not, taking 5 kids from class A, giving them to class B, and giving teacher B a raise, is hardly a slash and burn approach to education.

    To sum up: No, Gates’ recommendations are not scientifically proven. However, Gates’ does fund and advocate scientific study of educational techniques, making it nothing if not heavily ironic that inconclusive research results are used against him. You can call Gates an amateur for relying on unproven conjecture, but then so is everyone else, as current studies into optimal class size are inconclusive. It seems teacher response to Gates proposals should be moderated by the knowledge that here is an outside force willing to throw money and research at the problems of the modern education system… rather than calling for privatization, vouchers, and the general slash and burn of all our schools.

    • Bob Valiant, Jr.


      Oh, please. You’re the one who needs to “breathe” because you just spent several paragraphs ranting about absolutely nothing other than how maligned you feel King Gates is. I’m sure he sleeps better at night knowing that he has such staunch defenders in the rabble.

      “More cost vs. less cost” is how the world works! K-12 education costs about $500 billion per year and well over 60% of that is spent on teacher salaries and benefits. Don’t you think Gates and his ilk would rather see some of that money used to shore up state budgets to prevent future tax increases on the wealthy? (Do you think King Gates maybe pays property tax? Maybe capital gains tax?) Don’t you think they would rather see some of that money used to further for-profit activities like testing, program development, administration, software development, consulting, workshops, etc. that they control and profit from?

      Oh, and you say:

      “”Frankly, and furthermore, to the average person decreasing the cost of a good or service is generally a good thing. Technological advance is all about being able to do more good with less effort and less cost.”

      You mean like how Microsoft products have become cheaper and better, year after year? Oh wait, they haven’t? Well, at least MS has made MORE MONEY year after year, so they must be doing the “right thing,” huh? And that’s what it’s all measured by, right? One dollar, one vote — right?

      Hero worship in this nation is sickening. YOU are pathetic if you can’t see the motivations behind your heroes. Look on the bright side: maybe they’ll toss you some crumbs. Sorry – maybe they will deign to grant you the boon that you seek, should their Magesties see fit.


  5. Paul Muench

    I’m going to guess that Gates’ suggestion may work much better in wealthy districts than in poor districts. With lots of family support +/- 5 students may not make that much of a difference. At least in the 20-25 student range. So those districts could be an good place to experiment. Let parents choose between smaller class size or “top” teachers and see what happens.

  6. Pingback: Today’s “Round-Up” Of Good School Reform Articles & Posts | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day...

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