Let’s Make a Deal: Class Size Edition

A former colleague of mine sent me this Seattle Times article where the columnist—Danny Westneat– offered Bill Gates a deal. No, the deal didn’t involve shares of Microsoft or upgrading his laptop to Windows 7. This involved schools, specifically class sizes. Westneat proposed that Bill Gates’ former private high school double the size of its classes from 16 to 32 and use the savings to reduce the class size of his former public high school by half from 32 to 16. Since both he and Gates have 8 year old children who will likely attend those schools, Westneat wants to compare what impact those class sizes would have had on their children in 2020.

Why does Westneat want to make such a deal? It’s in response to an Op-Ed Gates wrote recently where he basically argued that smaller class sizes are a big waste of money. Westneat takes exception because Gate’s former prestigious private high school touts its small classes, as do most other elite private schools. So basically Westneat is calling Gates a hypocrite since Gates is advocating for larger classes in public schools, yet spending a lot of money to send his daughter to a school with small classes.

Does Westneat have a point? I say no. Gates is not advocating for increasing all classes by 16 students as Westneat proposes. No, Gates’ argument is actually based on research — not only on class size research, but on the impact of effective teachers. Gates interprets the research to show that having an effective teacher will increase student achievement more than being in a smaller class with a less effective teacher. That’s why Gates actually argued for raising class sizes by four or five students—not 16– for the top performing teachers so that more students have access to the best teachers. Now that’s a much more reasonable argument.

As a new father, I would definitely rather have my girls in a larger class with a more effective teacher than in a smaller class with a less effective teacher. I think most parents would feel the same way. So why do small class sizes typically trump effective teachers? The answer is simple: class size is easy to measure. Parents just don’t have access to data on the effectiveness of their teachers, while data on class size is readily available.  

Yes, parents have a fairly good idea about which teacher is better than another, but nothing quantifiable, since that information is just not available to them (or to school leaders, for that matter). Unfortunately, current evaluation systems fail to identify highly effective teachers. So parents are much more likely to rely on the hard numbers of class size to evaluate their schools than the effectiveness of the teaching staff.

Therein lies a significant shortcoming of Gates’ argument. Yes, in theory, students would be better off if they were in larger classes taught by more effective teachers. But current evaluation systems are unable to identify the most effective teachers. So increasing class size, particularly in the early grades, to reduce cost is something most parents will resist. However, if the Gates Foundation’s work on creating a more effective teacher evaluation system provides accurate and easily understood information about the effectiveness of teachers, then parents may change their behavior. Then Gates may just take Westneat’s deal. – Jim Hull

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