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.
- Danny Westneat: Bill Gates, have I got a deal for you! (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- If You’re Going to Glorify Education Statistics, You Have to Get the Numbers Right: The Bill Gates Edition [Mike the Mad Biologist] (scienceblogs.com)
- When It Comes To Class Size, Smaller Isn’t Always Better (time.com)