Sunday, May 20, 2007

Class Size, Part 1 - Prelude to a Multi-million Dollar Myth

I have spent the last few weeks investigating class size documentation and what I am finding without looking very hard is a frightening history of exaggerated claims, reckless spending of public funds, and an intellectual dishonesty that makes creationist fiction writers look like honest brokers.

With this the first entry in a multi-part series that I will continue periodically, I want to discuss the state of the arguments about class size and why it is such a hot-button issue.

First the popular myth believed whole-heartedly by the majority of parents, teachers, and administrators is that Small Class Size (SCS) is always desirable and, furthermore, that the mantra of Small Class Size applies to every grade. Let's think of these people as the sleep-walking consumers of the concept. Whether or not these consumers are being sold a bad bill of goods or whether they want to buy any bill of goods that's expense and feels good, or whether they are just intellectually too lazy to care is inconsequential. Lemmings are more likely to question their preconceptions than these consumers. And nobody, I mean nobody, is brave enough to give these people a dose of truth, the white lie is far to profitable to derail.

Certain politicians like this argument as well because instead of having to draft thoughtful legislation or fund meaningful programs, the act of shopping and throwing millions of dollars at a solution that all of these people like is oh, so tidy (I, politician, am good and noble). In fact, some politicians think that they've been elected largely to shop for their constituencies. Small Class Size is the shiny, very expensive item in their shopping cart.

The teacher unions also like this idea. Very, very much. And teachers unions also promote this argument in three ways. First, through teachers as advocates, secondly through thinly disguised special interest research groups who predominantly consist of former educators,and finally by overwhelming representation on educational governing bodies - BOEs, State Associations, and so on. They even seed most search engines with their point of view. Try searching on "Small Class Size". You will get a parade of NEA, AFT, and special interest web pages advocating proof positive research papers on the joys of small class size.

And society and politicians have bought in. They can't write checks big enough, fast enough, or with more sincere empathy. Everybody is broke but happy forevermore.


Um, there's a few problems with all of this of course and it will not sit well with the meek of spirit or those feeling bamboozled.

I have read dozens of research papers on this topic, most from scholarly journals, all of which cite dozens more research artifacts. Not a single credible source agrees with the consumers, buyers, and advocates of this myth. Not one.

The studies worth reading - those that demonstrate some intellectual veracity - all lament the lack of adequate research especially in the classes higher than fourth grade, the fuzzy quality of existing studies, and the inability to isolate even under ideal conditions the actual effect of SCS on student achievement.

In this series, I will cite only studies that pass my own sniff test of credibility. You are welcome to add counterpoint in the comments.

And it is fair to ask, Why bother? Although discussions on class size are referred to as debates, these are debates which have been acted upon under false pretenses using precious private lives of children and public resources.

The result?

After thirty years of dwindling class sizes in American public education, no significant academic achievement is to be found on a national scale. This is not to say, that SCS is wholly without merit - there are notable and important places where it is worth pursuing.

But in California that not only legislated SCS but coupled class size to per pupil physical space, resource rooms, art rooms, music facilities, and more were dismantled to accommodate the government mandate.

In Florida, teacher shortages threaten the quality of education.

With a rush to hire ever more teachers, school systems are saddled with more and more poor teachers who become impossible to replace.

Most troubling is that educational, scientific research has become a parody of itself. I have encountered disturbing examples of Master's Thesis papers that conclude that there is no positive effect of small class sizes as advertised but dismiss the conclusion in summary to end with a fictional happy ending proclaiming what society needs is smaller class sizes! Honest self-evaluation may get you drummed out of the profession.

Worse still, University published research often suffers from what I'll call apologetic research conclusions. The authors will find no credible evidence that class size matters and will say so closely followed by "but we really think it should make a difference and if you don't like this conclusion blame the data or rearrange the algorithm or...".

It is as if both science and math have no factual basis in educational research.

The academic dishonesty really needs to stop. It distorts public policy and undermines the credibility of educational evangelists with better ideas.

In coming segments, I'll try to sort out the truth from the inertia of lies.

- Frank Krasicki

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