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What Does the Best and Wisest Parent Want?


Dear Deborah,

Well, I certainly agree with you that all kids should have the quality of education now available only for students in the best schools. Given how much our nation spends on education, this should not be a pipe dream, but we know that it is not happening and has not happened in the past.

We both recall that John Dewey wrote that what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child is what the community should want for all its children. That's a good starting point. What does the best and wisest parent want for his or her own child?

Certainly, that parent would want a school with small classes, which guarantees that her child would get personal attention. Class size is a pretty good indicator of what most people mean by quality. If you visit the most elite private schools, you can bet that they don't have 32 students in a class. On the Web sites of such schools, one learns that classes are typically 12 to 15 students to a teacher. Such luxury is unheard of in most public schools, with the possible exception of schools in tony suburbs. Many of those who pronounce that class size doesn't matter send their own children to schools with small classes.

Another indicator of quality is the presence of the arts. The best and wisest parent would not want his child to go to a school with no teachers of music, art, dance, or other arts. Yet we know that in most of our public schools today, the arts have been sacrificed to make more time for test-prepping.

One more point: That wise parent would demand schools that were physically attractive and well-maintained. He or she would not tolerate the neglect, deterioration, and obsolescence that we see so often in our schools. There are lots of other things that our mythical best-and-wisest parent would insist upon, but these three points, I think, are indisputable, and a good starting point.

Are these the priorities of President Obama's Race to the Top Fund? Absolutely not! The president's Department of Education will dispense nearly $5 billion, not to reduce class sizes, not to expand access to the arts, and not to improve the beauty and functionality of our public schools, but to incentivize the workforce with merit pay; to increase the privatization of struggling schools; and to compel teachers to teach to admittedly poor tests by tying teacher pay to students' test scores.

Let's get back to the new federal education agenda. Seeing how little has changed from Bush to Obama in education policy, I want my share of that $5 billion back. (That may become my weekly mantra!).



Diane, there is something conspicuous missing from the wish list of the wise parent. Science education should be factored in as well. Not at the expense of English language, History and the arts - but in addition to.

The concerned parent sends his kids to Kumon, to after hours tutoring, and to the Russian School of Math. The parent moves to the best public schools of the fancy suburbs, if (s)he can afford it, and can't help but notice that grade school is a prolonged kindergarten that lasts until 5th grade. If the parent can't afford the move, or the extra tutoring, (s)he remains just that - concerned.

Diane, my issue with the President's spending is not this $5B, but the other $10 trillion in debt he's racking up. Yes, I want much back.

Yet I'm much more interested in avoiding a repetition of this mess. Thus, to me, a more educated Republican side in 2008 would not have allowed Mike Huckabee to throw the election to the far-left-wing spendthrift we have now.

And a more learned Democrat side would be sending more enlightened opinion up to their party leaders about what benefits and entitlements we actually can and cannot afford.

How do we get there?

Much as I love and appreciate the Arts, I can't look around our present society and say, "there aren't enough arts". What I do look at and say is that 'there aren't enough Black scientists, marketing professionals, pharmaceutical technicians, game designers; there aren't enough voters familiar with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles; not enough talking heads who dive into the gritty details of a superpower's national security infrastructure; and not enough professionals working on smart roadways and landfill recycling technology.

This week I'm starting an exploration of the New Tech Network. I'd love to hear any thoughts and experiences from the group.

A parent wants classrooms that are free of disruption. Every minute a teacher spends on handling a disruption is a minute lost to teaching. There is also the lost time for a class to get back on track after a disruption.

Well, I may not be the best or the wisest parent, but I am a parent, and one who has now racked up some parenting mileage. I can relate first off how annoying it is for educators to expound upon what it is that parents want--particularly when there are no (non-educator)parents in the room. I remember my futile search for the parent involvement in school improvement planning promised by NCLB. I asked the question in many different ways--always met by either blank looks or platititudes. I asked about when the meeting would be held (well, there is no real meeting time, the teachers who are working on it just sort of get together). I asked about how they were gathering parent input (oh, well, we talk to parents all the time). When it was finally clear that there was to be no venue for parent involvement in school improvement planning, I asked to read the draft plan and how to register a written response--a procedure required by law. I even followed up to determine the ultimate outcome of the complaint. As far as I can tell, it was clipped to the plan and filed.

Apparently I am an anomaly. What the educators already knew about parents is that parents don't want to be bothered with involvement. All my questions merely labelled me as atypical, perhaps a problem, definitely not the sort of parent who ought to be involved, if they had to involve any parents at all. Year after year they were able to locate some candy-selling cheerleader mom who was willing to sign off on an improvement plan without reading it.

My experience as the parent of one child with special needs does not incline me to look for smaller class sizes. The smaller classes (with a "specially trained" teacher) have always been accompanied by greater needs, lowered expectations and fewer resources. The trade-off has never been beneficial. And there are always trade-offs.

So, maybe the wisest and best parent, is one who holds on to a healthy skepticism whenever a mind-reader suggests that they know what is best for your child--particularly when the mind-reader gets a benefit from what they are selling. The quality underlying the promise of small classes--that every child is paid attention to and gets what they need is real. It is evident in research done with parents. Can this be done without small classes? I don't know for certain. I know that there are mechanisms (small homerooms, mentoring systems, looping, etc) that have attempted to bring this into schools without the expense of cutting class sizes by one-third to one-half. But my larger concern is that creating schools capable of meeting individual student needs is a different goal than creating schools with smaller class sizes. And I can just about guarantee that without a consistent focus on meeting individual student needs, there will be schools of minimal class size (particularly for low-income students) who still don't get it.

In my community, state attempts to rectify a court-declared inequitible school funding system led the district to launch a facilities capital campaign for the first new buildings in nearly half a century. The community has supported the bond issues--which bring in a state match. But the parents were and are skeptical. New and up-to-date buildings are important, but if what goes on inside the building doesn't receive attention, count it as a loss. Last week I had the opportunity to attend a meeting in a suburban school. On the way I drove past the newly renovated high school in my neighborhood. Then I arrived at the new school compound in the suburbs (new High School, new Middle School, Separate Gymnasium Buildings, spacious parking lot, track and field). I knew immediately that our upgrade did not compare. I don't know how to get around the way in which our facilities communicate to some kids that they are more deserving than others. And there are some parents willing to pay a pretty penny for that communication.

I am a big fan and supporter of the arts--as an integral part of education. I have never bought into the dichotomy that the path to improved knowledge outcomes (measured by standardized tests, or in any other way) lay in throwing out the "extras." Further I don't believe that their removal can be linked to any sort of improvement. This parent wants both. May I?

But, I can tell you that there are many many dissatisfied parents, particularly those in urban areas, those of students systemically denied the attention that seems requisite--such as students with disabilities. This one here is tired of the crap shoot that says one year my child has a wonderful teacher and the next year just has to get through a bad experience. This one is tired of carrying messages between teachers, administrators or "downtown" offices who are supposed to be working together to educate my child--but in reality don't talk to one another and are barely aware of one another's existence. This one is tired of entire dysfunctional buildings where teachers are blaming the principal, the principal is blaming downtown and everyone is blaming the kids and the parents.

This parent really wants strong accountability for learning, for discipline and for school climate and culture. This parent is not opposed to teachers being paid fairly, or their work being regulated by contract, or their receiving benefits. But this parent would like a bit of recognition that the deal that teachers are getting is a better one than is available to many of the parents of the children that they teach. I would appreciate just a bit of respect for my own time in the scheduling of meetings and the timing of phone calls.

In the end, I still hold to a belief that the wisest and best parent wants to be given respect and involvement in their child's education. I would like to believe that there are means of allowing for this, and for educating our students well, without having to resort to holding out bonus incentives or firing very many unsuitable teachers. But, I am frustrated. Childhood is short. In my state the courts have just settled one-half of a lawsuit regarding the education of students with disabilities. The suit was begun eighteen years ago. As a reformer, I can cheer. But as the parent of a student whose school career is included entirely in that 18 year process, I despair.

I went to hear Arne Duncan's speech at Teachers College last week to hear what he would have to say about the Race to the Top policy initiative. His speech had all the predictable elements of praising Teachers College and other "shining examples" while making the sweeping claim that "many if not most" schools of education are doing a mediocre job. He dodged answering questions about federal support for initiatives that would target early reading preparation in teacher education, a focus on black males, or ways to have more collaboration between liberal arts faculty and schools of education. His reference to "reading and math wars" took the easy way out by simply stating that Singapore and South Korea get better results than we do. His over-simplification of the promise of "residency models" of teacher preparation as akin to the medical model reveals that he has read little research on alternative pathways.
What concerns me most are two big ideas in the Race to the Top document, the first one raised by Diane:

Reporting the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs: The extent to which the State has a high-quality plan and ambitious yet achievable annual targets to link a student's achievement data to the student's teachers and principals, to link this information to the programs where each of those teachers and principals was prepared for credentialing, and to publicly report the findings for each credentialing program that has twenty or more graduates annually.

There are several problems with this notion of linking pupil test scores to teachers and principals, and the programs that prepared them, on an annual basis. There are purely logistical issues regarding the timing of the states' tests, the reporting of the results, and the extent to which an individual teacher and principal can be held accountable for the results achieved. We know that measuring the degree to which students have successfully learned curriculum material is woefully simplistic if reduced to a score on a norm-referenced, multiple choice test of questionable quality. Adding an additional layer of measuring teacher education program quality by this simplistic measure is equally inadequate. Using this data to argue for closure of teacher preparation programs is attaching a high stakes policy and action to a tiny fraction of what it is we expect teacher preparation programs to do. Just as we have seen a backlash to the narrow goals of NCLB and horror at what high stakes testing is doing to schools, imagine if we argued for preparing teachers to make student test scores go up. What of the morally defensible means to those ends? What of the important role that teachers play in the full development of the child, not just academic achievement as measured by a test? And what if the willingness and effort required of the learner is beyond the control of the educator, whether we are talking about a preK-12 student, or a student teacher? We know that learning is not uni-directional, and that a social surround supportive of learning is also of paramount importance.
The second point of concern regards the policy world’s love affair with Teach for America:

Providing alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals: The extent to which the State has in place legal, statutory, or regulatory provisions that allow alternative routes to certification (as defined in this notice) for teachers and principals,
particularly routes that allow for providers in addition to institutions of higher education; and the extent to which these routes are in use.

The whole problem of what exactly constitutes an "alternative pathway" and whether it resides inside or outside an institute of higher education is an issue that has made research on the effectiveness of these pathways very problematic. In some cases, such as the New York City Teaching Fellows program, there is no student teaching or residency, and most of the teachers in that program do not get to work side by side with a mentor teacher, yet the coursework is done at the schools of education. So the notion implied by this criteria for federal funding that somehow these alternatives will be better than what currently exists is simply unfounded by any research that I know of. In fact, the executive summary of the Pathways project, one of the largest and most complete studies to date, explains their finding that whatever minor gains in student achievement were generated by teachers prepared in alternative pathways disappeared after a few years, and that teachers from more elite colleges were more likely to leave the teaching profession. The website for the study can be found here:

Well said.

Where is the content and ideas that children should be learning in your description of what an ideal school should look like? Wouldn't you want your children to learn something as well as receive personal attention?

Hi All... hope this finds you well.

As i read many of the above posts...what continues to strike me in reading the comments and looking around my small county is "we" continue to allow seperate and unequal education in America.
Look here for a visual of reality.


There are other solutions....that could be taken into consideration.

Gerald Grants book is worth reading:


Amazing how rarely this topic is even considered...

how long will we allow these 2 very different systems to co-exist and why?

be well... mike

Funny sort of best/wisest parent, this one, who demands arts, music, small class sizes, and physically attractive buildings, but not that their kid actually learns reading, writing, or mathematics.

I am grateful that my parents were rather less than the best/wisest by Diane's definition and set me to a high school which, in decaying 40-year old "temporary" pre-fabs and the worst of 1970s concrete blocks had maths, history and science teachers who were passionate about their subjects and students who actually didn't regard doing well in school as reason to make you a social pariah. With all due respect to arts and music, they don't open as many doors in the future as reading, writing and maths skills do, and reading, writing and maths gives you access to many great works of literature and beautiful mathematical proofs as well.

Hi Tracy... hope this finds you well.

I am thinking that both Diane and Deb are not seeing this as an "either" or "choice"......

Ed...the link you posted looks cool.... imagine a larger county system with many highschools....balanced by SES...with choices kids could make based of their talents and interests.

be well... mike

That wise parent would demand schools that were physically attractive and well-maintained. He or she would not tolerate the neglect, deterioration, and obsolescence that we see so often in our schools.

You should clarify: A wise parent might reasonably expect a school to be well-maintained, in the sense of being run by responsible adults who don't allow children to destroy the place. But a parent would be the opposite of wise to care one whit about how expensive the gym is, or how many brand-new computers there are, or any other factors that have zero to do with student learning.

Having parented four children, and having educated hundreds of other people's children conscientiously, I support small classes, the arts and safe, clean, attractive school buildings. Although these do not make up the totality of a quality education, they are key elements missing from high poverty and--more recently--from middle class schools today.

Both children and teachers have needs beyond academic learning; needs for movement, laughter, music, art, friendship, conversation, exploration, and pursuing their own interests. Six hours a day inside a crowded, hot (or cold) dilapidated classroom, either sitting silently or standing up talking, is a grueling routine for anyone to bear. And to what end, higher test scores?

Arne Duncan and his supporters, think of children as mechanical parts in some huge machine, designed to crank out workers for industry, and teachers as robots programmed to spout facts, correct work sheets, and keep children quiet.

What a sad place the American school has become in the 21st Century! Instead of of supporting parents in their mission to raise independent, productive, thinking, happy adults, the school acts as the servant of industry and the enforcer of compliance and mediocrity.

I wanted better for my children and got it in schools that supported their strengths, treated their weaknesses with patience and understanding, immersed them in the joys of learning, and, when they fell down, picked them up, dusted them off, and set them back on track again.

I want schools like those for every child today and in the future..

Test-prep is not an academic subject, I really wish it were not treated a such. I was part of a discussion last summer with a public school teacher and a bunch of other homeschooling mothers. He asked us how much time we spent on test prep. The answer was unanimous: "None!" and yet homeschoolers continue to rank in the 80th+ percentiles on nationally-normed grade level tests. (It may actually be higher. I don't have the stats in front of me.)

If the skills of test prep are so important, how can this be? Shouldn't the children being drilled in how to take the test do better on the test than those who are completely ignoring it until it's time to open the test booklet? What homeschool teachers have that classroom teachers don't is the ultimate in small class size and the ultimate in autonomy. We can tailor the education directly to the child, modifying approaches and curricula when necessary. We need to take the power away from the government and give it back to the teachers. Then, our kids will get the education they deserve, and teacher satisfaction will soar.

I have to respond to Princess Mom because what she suggests with regard to test prep is so true--and yet the schools are lousy with it. I remember back in the early, pre-NCLB days of state testing when my daughter had an opportunity to attend a Saturday enrichment program prior to the test. I don't know who ran it. Clearly some non-educator who didn't know anything about test prep. It was offered on four Saturdays, as I recall, one for each tested content area. In science they learned about the scientific method--using what I would judge to be inquiry-based pedagogy. They learned about American government for Social Studies through some kind of mock government exercise. I forget what English and math covered, except that they were equally engaging. Didn't cover anywhere near the amount of territory included in the later test-prep classes that were available for my son. These were clearly put together by teachers. They had workbooks. They asked questions in the form that they would be on the test. They used sample questions from previous years. The workbooks were bigger than the phone books in the town where I graduated high school.

I am quite certain that we have no idea which of the two approaches was more successful--the district doesn't generally ask questions like that. But I have some hunches. It would seem to me that in the allotted four hour block per content area you can choose between picking a key piece of content and learning it well or trying to race through a year's worth--putting half the kids to sleep, ensuring that a percentage won't come back next week and that everyone suffers from the experience.

And it galls me that there is NOTHING, not NCLB, not IDEA, no state regs and no parental demands forcing schools to pick one over the other. And yet they will make the wrong choice and report that they had no choice.

When parents think like politicians their educational goals are for kids to graduate high school with good enough scores to enable them to go to college etc - what's important is the piece of paper.
When parents think a bit deeper we get answers like - education helping them to become better people , caring , responsible , independent and interdependent adults etc independent thinkers , people who have the life skills to work with people and problem solve

Besides teaching kids how to think in a multidisciplinary way , and being interested and curious about the world around them , something which the drill 'n skill approach destroys , we need to address their moral-social developmental needs by creating interdependent learning communities which don't compete against each , but support each others learning and act in pro social ways.

When we use punishment, rewards , consequences we teach kids to ask what will I get if I behave in a certain way , what will be done to me , what's in it for me . Instead of using discipline to solve problems we should like the title of Alfie Kohn's book beyond discipline , moving from compliance to community and use problem solving and values to solve problems.

Test prep schools , schools that focus on skills and drill don't provide an education and can be a predictor of outcomes in the social-moral area of kids .

see the impact of either Direct Instruction or a High Scope model of early childhood education - http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ece.htm

When the researchers checked in again eight years later, things had gotten even worse for the young adults who had attended a preschool with a heavy dose of skills instruction and positive reinforcement. They didn't differ from their peers in the other programs with respect to their literacy skills, total amount of schooling, income, or employment status. But they were far more likely to have been arrested for a felony at some point and also to have been identified as “emotionally impaired or disturbed.” (Six percent of the High/Scope and free-play preschool group had been so identified at some point, as compared to a whopping 47 percent of the DI group.) The researchers also looked to see who was now married and living with his or her spouse. The results: 18 percent of the free-play preschool group, 31 percent of the High/Scope group, and not a single person from the DI group.[12]

Technology is very much part of life today and can provide the ecology for great learning

I know the kind of teachers who inspired me , and gave me a love of learning , exposing us kids to an interesting world beyond a dull curiculum , these are the same teachers I want for my kids.



Smaller class sizes, greater access to the arts, and improved beauty and functionality of our public schools are all commendable and I'm sure would be included on the lists of many parents.

HOWEVER, I was curious to see the title of today's entry as what the best and wisest parents would want for their own children. Curious because this is not the cohort I would have focused on nor the one I believe Obama is worried about either . The best and wisest parents are probably going to get it right on their own and are not in need of any of Obama's $4.3 billion Race To The Top monies.

I believe Obama/Duncan have focused the money in the right place, on parents who may not fall into either the best or wisest category, namely the urban/poor. This is certainly not to say all poor or all urban parents have the most problems, but as almost a generation of states can now validate through NCLB tests, their children are experiencing the most problems in school. These are the kids identified over and over in the achievement gap.

The primary area I like the administration's focus on is (I also am a merit pay fan as you know) lifting the cap on charters, not because charters have proven to be more effective (academically) but; (1) because it gives urban parents a choice, previously afforded only to families of wealth, and (2) it gives urban parents a SAFE PLACE to send their children to school. In many instances with charter schools there is also an extended day component which allows urban youngsters an alternative to after school solitaire as well as avoidance of the ubiquity of neighborhood gangs.

Yes, if I were an urban parent (am a parent but live in the burbs) a safe school (day) would be a top priority, if not the top priority for my child. As we've all read about, many charter schools are structured in such a way that their administrators don't have to tolerate the discipline problems public school administrators would love to see disappear. They are allowed to simply show these troublemakers the door.

I would have to believe also that a safe school would be much more conducive to improved academic development than a school with a track record of discipline problems.

Just one person's take on the issue.

Interesting that Diane implicitly defines "wisest parent" as "wealthiest parent".

And I'm going to keep hammering one point home: we don't have enough good teachers now. Why on earth are you proposing to decrease classroom size so that we'll spread the good ones around thinner?

Finally, I live in the Bay Area, and am extremely familiar with the private school class size. It's nowhere near 12-15. Much more like 18-22, or even 25.


Japan has spartan classrooms and large class sizes. As a California middle school teacher, I'd be quite content with crowded cinder-block schools if only the intellectual content of our teachers' minds and schools' curricula were luxuriously appointed and well-crafted. To me the true beauty and wealth of a school lies in its spirit and invisible resources. I thought that you would agree with me. I worry that your comments here will only reinforce American's tendency to ignore the spiritual/intellectual impoverishment of the schools.

When I was nine years old, I moved from a crowded parochial classroom in Brooklyn to a beautiful public school in the suburbs of New Jersey. There were only 25 children in the room. I was so thrilled with my kind teacher and the generous art supplies that I vowed I'd never go to a Catholic school again, nor would I send my children there.

So I was surprised at how my values changed when it came to my own two sons. Yes, I started them in a highly touted public school in an affluent neighborhood, but I soon became aware of the daily disruptions, the low expectations and the problems with safety. One day after observing my older son's class and seeing how the teacher had to deal with frequent interruptions, I described the scene to my husband who said, "We can't send our child to a school like that."

We took a close look at all the private schools in the area and chose one that seemed very safe with well-behaved students who were high-achievers. To be honest I never asked about the curriculum, the instruction or the qualifications of the teachers. I didn't care about religion, either, although I kept this to myself. The school was a Catholic school with a "family" atmosphere. There were always lots of parents around to watch the kids on the playground (forced labor) and that meant a great deal to me, especially since my one son had a disability (Type I diabetes).

Many people criticize public school teachers because "they wouldn't allow their own kids to attend the school where they teach." That was true of me. I taught in a rough neighborhood and would never allow my sons to come for even one hour. I was too afraid that another child would assault them. So I am guilty of that but how many people will compromise the safety of their children?

My second son also attended this school but in the seventh grade he announced that "the teacher is crazy and I'm not going back." It turned out that she WAS mentally ill (was telling the children she had a gun in her drawer - not true). By the time the principal got the teacher to resign, my son was settled at the local public school again and loving it. He went on to the public magnet high school, while my older son graduated from a private Catholic boys school. (I still have the guilts about that, but he turned out well.)

In conclusion, I would say that my husband and I were concerned with safety, behavior and academic achievement of the student body. Our sons did very well academically and graduated from great universities, so I feel that I made the right decisions, for the most part.

One thing we can do for all children is to provide safe schools that are free of disruptions. It seems to me that this should be a bare minimum that every parent has a right to expect for his child.

Cal has a great point -- Ravitch's post isn't about a "wise" parent, it's about a selfish bastard who expects to beat out 90% of the rest of society in getting their own children into a small class with a good teacher (leaving many of the rest of us to have small classes with dropouts from the worst education schools).

I'm in agreement with many others that beauty of class buildings is not the number 1 goal. I have had my kid in a variety of schools (including kindergarten in a low-performing, all-poor school in Seattle). The quality of the teachers mattered far more than school building. (We actually selected that "low-performing" school over a "high-performing" one, because the kindergarten teacher was great.)

We ended up in private schools that we can't really afford, not for the small class sizes (frankly, I'd be glad to double the class size and halve the tuition), but for the passionate and caring teachers who really know the material they teach. Also for the flexibility to schedule kids into classes at their challenge levels, rather than assuming that all kids of a given age from IQ 60 to IQ 160 should be on the same page at all times.

The private schools we've chosen have mostly had poorer facilities than the public schools in our area (the private schools have had no gyms, tiny or non-existent libraries, tiny classrooms, and in one case electrical wiring that couldn't handle even a 15 amp load in a classroom). They have had art and music programs, but more importantly have had good math, science, history, and foreign language programs---all of which were missing from the public elementary schools, and only the math was present in the public middle schools.

Mike - unless you are incredibly lucky with local schools, it is always an either/or choice. Diane talks about the $5 billion the president is spending, if that $5 billion is spent on small class sizes, physically attractive environments, and arts and music then it's not available for spending on humanities, maths and sciences learning (and on the reading and arithemtic skills necessary to learn those humanities, maths and sciences). So implicitly Diane is saying that the best/wisest of parents would chose small class sizes, etc over other values like learning the humanities, maths and sciences. And if that's the case, I'm grateful that my parents were not the best/wisest of parents.

And I will note that while there was a private school nearby my childhood home which did have all the things Diane lists, it did rather fall down on the humanities/maths/science issue. Not only did my parents not send me there, but one of my friends at my high school had been going there until her parents had started to worry about its academic quality. Just another couple I suppose for Diane's list of non-best/wisest of parents.

Hope you're well too Mike. Thanks for your courteous response.

Hi Tracey... hope this finds you well.

Hey... if you get a chance check out the links i provided above...would love to hear you take!

Tracey..thinking holisticlly... not seeing either or but "and"....and also the BIG 3....THE GOOD, THE TRUE, THE BEAUTIFUL....

Thoughtfully we can integrate these...

be well... mike


I agree with everything that you have written and with many of the comments written above, but what about the technology!!!

I am currently sitting at an Einstein's restaurant writing this note and as I look around I see six laptops (in a small restaurant). Each of the people on these laptops is using the computer for a different reason. I'd guess that we each have different programs running. At the beginning of the Twenty First Century it is absolutely essential that students learn to use technology in meaningful ways. It is no longer acceptable for teachers to be working with a group of students with simply pens and pencils and discussion constrained to the classroom. Technology must also be at play. For example, just last week, I was was working with a group of students and a question came up that I didn't have the answer to. It wouldn't have been satisfactory for me to say "I don't know the answer." I also had to show my students how to find the answer and I did this by pulling out my Blackberry with an Internet browser. Students don't always have to use technology but they have to learn how to use it.

Andrew Pass

I mentioned technology and shared Sylvia Martinez's blog

'Technology is very much part of life today and can provide the ecology for great learning '


A school can be made beautiful just by the learning itself, the culture, the intellect and heart of the people there.

That doesn't mean anyone should have to teach in a trailer or learn in a room with mice and leaking ceilings. But decent facilities can be beautiful or ugly, depending on what fills them.

I had memories of the beautiful auditorium at my high school. When I went back to see it a few years ago, not only I, but several of my classmates were surprised how small and simple it was. It even had folding chairs. My memory had changed them into something fancier--plush or mahogany seats or something.

What had made it so beautiful in my mind? The choruses that sang requiems and madrigals in it; the assemblies every week, where we began and ended with singing; the concerts, plays, and other special performances; the balcony where we loved to sit and lean on the railing; the piano that students would play; the backstage, the hiding places.

By contrast, the auditorium at the first school where I taught was physically impressive: big and elegant, with a velvet-curtained stage and a sound room. But it was hardly ever used for the students. There were a few faculty meetings there. I started directing plays. Assemblies were rare and rather rowdy. That's not to say this school had an ugly atmosphere--it had a lot of good things--but that auditorium did not seem beautiful until we put something in it.

My high school had a lovely library. Part of its beauty was that we were allowed to actually use it whenever we wanted, when we weren't in class. Many schools have big libraries that the students never get to use on their own--they must come with their class at designated times and pick a book quickly. And the librarian might not even let them take out a book if it isn't on their so-called reading level.

So the beauty of a place is inseparable, I think, from the curriculum, the teachers, the parents, the students, the custodial workers, the administrators, and the overall feel of the place. Yes, schools should have great facilities, to the extent that those make a difference. But there's much more that makes the beauty of a school--that even transforms the physical setting.

Diana Senechal


I've been a huge Obama supporter from the get-go. Just yesterday a friend sent me an email with this address listed.


Go here and see if it doesn't get your attention.


Beautifully stated and so true.

I have a question for you. Were the authors for the two Stanford studies on charter schools both advocates of charters? I was under the impression that the first study was done by a researcher who is against charters while the second study (Hoxby) was done by a charter supporter. Thanks.


I have to disagree with you about classroom size being a factor in education. While it continues to be an unshakable widespread belief, most studies find that students do not recieve a more personal or 'better' education in smaller classrooms after the fourth grade or so.

Small classrooms are critical in the low elementary grades but less so after that. This is not to say that huge classroom sizes are desirable, merely that there is little evidence that they improve the quality overall.

Frank Krasicki

The parents I know prefer schools in which less teaching--from multiplication tables to projects too large and complex for students to do on their own--is outsourced to parents.

They also prefer schools in which their children are challenged mathematically, taught the standard algorithms of arithmetic, permitted to use these algorithms, and not required to explain their answers to mathematically easy questions.

They also prefer schools in which students aren't required to work in unsupervised groups of peers.

Finally, they prefer schools that provide official outlets for parental feedback about these and other issues.

Unfortunately, not enough such schools exist.

Katharine Beals
Author of "Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World."

In this case, the majority of NYC parents are “the best and the wisest.”

Over and over again, in the DOE own annual surveys, public school parents say their top priority for their children’s schools is smaller classes, followed by more enrichment. And yet they are completely ignored by an administration whose own children attend schools with just these attributes.

One might add, what private school has merit pay tied to standardized test scores? Or spends millions to create teams of teachers and bureaucrats to engage in “data analysis” supposedly to help “differentiate” instruction, while doing nothing to reduce class size?

What private school has adopted what is likely to be the next priority of the administration, according to Chris Cerf, which is to further “individualize” learning through online computer instruction, rather than give students an opportunity to receive more feedback from actual human beings? As Joel Klein has said, if he gets his way, he will cut the teaching force by another 30 percent.

Not a single private school that I know of would stand for such priorities, and certainly none of the elite schools where the officials determining educational policy for our public schools sent their own children to school.

Mayor Bloomberg: Spence (average class size: 16-18); Chancellor Klein: Miss Porter’s (average class size: 11); Photo Agnostopoulos (DOE’s Chief Operating Officer) Dalton (average class size: 15)

Obama: Sidwell Friends (average class size: 15).

Instead of taking heed of the DOE's own parent surveys, the mayor continually tells parents to butt out when it comes to issues like school overcrowding, and only involve themselves "in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades."


Class size depends alot on teaching approaches.

The DI transmission model -where kids are disciplined to sit quietly and follow a perfectly scripted lecture - you can have a class of several hundreds

In a more constructivist class room where the teacher facilitates learning between groups of students the class does not need to be very small

In a class where the instruction is frontal and interactive one would need a smaller class.

If courses just demand memory and learning facts you don't need a teacher

It is unfortunate that the issue of class size is introduced as a metric of the quality of a school.

Small class sizes are the most effective marketing tool that schools of all kinds have to appeal to the snobbish consumer.

There is an air of exclusivity to the idea that consumers love. And teachers who benefit from smaller workloads aren't about to complain.

However, the cost-effectiveness of smaller class sizes beyond the forth grade simply is breaking the backs of taxpayers. Until we begin to addrss the needs of students and the effective deployment of teaching staff then education will remain a ship lost at sea.

Frank Krasicki

If class size does not matter, why are the school officials Leonie mentions above so willing to spend their own money to fund smaller classes for their children?

A smaller class is not necessarily a lower workload, for the teacher, either. Smaller class load when managed correctly means the same workload for the teacher, but more attention and focus on the learning of each student.

This attention (along with other things), is what the leaders of NYC schools and President Obama pay for when the shell out the big bucks for tuition.

Tony Waters


Why are people willing to spend their money on a Porsche when a Toyota would do equally well? Because it feels good, and because they can afford it.

Why do people pay to fly first class when business class costs half as much, and coach costs 1/10? Because it feels good, and because they can afford it.

While the daytime load may not necessarily be lighter for a teacher in a small class, the stress is much lighter, and so is the work load at home (grading, essay reading, preparation). And the unions love it. More teachers mean more membership dues and more political clout, independent of teacher salary.

For me there were two big reasons why I loved having 20 children in my first-grade class, as opposed to 33. First and foremost I felt that I could check the work of each child every day and give a little one-on-one instruction, especially to those who needed it. As any teacher will tell you, a lot of effective teaching takes place when it's geared to individual needs.

Second, when there are over thirty children in a class, it's necessary to keep the children in their seats for safety reasons; but with twenty, there can be more movement within the classroom. This is very important for young children.

And yes, it was so much less stressful for me when we had class size reduction in the early 1990s. It probably enabled me to teach a bit longer, but some people might not think that was a good thing. I've noticed that veteran teachers are definitely not valued right now.

Smaller class size is perhaps the only thing everybody can agree to be good. It's also the only thing that can be solved by throwing more money at the problem.

What smaller class size does not do: it does not make teachers more competent academically. In fact, it brings the average competence down. Smaller class sizes result in more teachers; and academically strong teachers are already too few as proved by license tests like the MTEL in Massachusetts.

Having a Porsche or a Toyota may be a "personal choice," when driving at 55 mph. But that's not what the schools do. They put students in a race, and then reward the winner with college admissions/subsidies, scholarships, and other honors on the assumption that it is "meritocratic." But a race between a Porsche and my Toyota is not about meritocratic driving skill, is it? Some things are about "personal preferences" as you point out, but others are about the very essence of fairness and equity.

The workload at home for a teacher depends on how much and what they assign and can grade personally. This is very much effected by the size of the class. The more students there are, the more multiple choice assignments there will be (zip zip through the Scantron), and the fewer labor intensive (but high quality) writing assignments.

Who do you think gets more high quality writing assignments, the Obama girls at Sidwell, or students at the DC public high school down the road which has 30-35 students in their classes? Along with exclusivity, the arts, music, and many other extra-curricular activities this is what Sidwell is selling. Why shouldn't those who happen to be poor also be given some access to such things if they are going to run with the Obama girls?

I have had some personal experience with such problems this semester. The administration upped the number of students in my classes and I lowered the number of writing assignments. It is that simple...


Tony, the administration may have upped the number of class students not because they don't like smaller class sizes. They have to run within a budget. They don't control the total budget, nor the number of incoming kids.
For them, budget policy is about choices. All they can do is prioritize expenses - smaller class sizes for all, or more special ed expenses, or additional specialists, or new computer hardware.

Suffice it to say, it is completely the wrong thing for a teacher to lower the number of student writing assignments because the class size has gotten larger. Is grading these assignments really that time consuming? I doubt it. It's as if students get punished as a poke in the eye to the administration ... It's simply wrong.

andrei is on point about smaller class size. As an easy fix (assuming cash availability--as seems to be the case wtih RttT), it is very attractive. California's large-scale experience with the impact of class-size reduction points up exactly what andrei suggests, which is that in the real life of public education we have an enormous capacity issue. We don't have a glut of highly qualified (in any meaningful sense of the words) teachers waiting in the wings. To partner reduced class size with a reduction in teacher quality, as California discovered, is a wash.

It is certainly alluring to look at the schools selected, not by the best and wisest, but by those with the broadest range of options and to reduce the difference to a single, easily quantifiable indicator. This misses out on all of the what else draws those with means to those experience. While I would like to think that at least the Obamas are interested in the provision of a somewhat diverse experience for their daughters, there is no getting around the exclusivity of the noted schools with such lovely small classes. As Diane noted, they also boast lovely facilities and high quality arts programs. It should also be noted that whether or not they participate in or publish state level standardized test scores, they use some similar metric to substantiate quality: SAT, ACT, They boast as well not only their graduation rate, but the after-school accomplishments of their graduates: admission into highly regarded institutions of higher learning. They may even track their alums into professional life. All of these outcomes are certainly shared and considered by this group of parents with broad options.

But, what may be even more important, is whether there is anything critical going on within those schools that CAN be brought to scale. It is easy to assume that there is a good deal of individual attention. I suspect that this is not only enabled by classroom size, but also motivated by the school's drive to attract high-powered parents. Nobody in those schools is given the message that they should strive to succeed by overcoming their home life. When Barack or Michelle visit, I can guarantee that it is FAR more disruptive than when I or other parents from my neighborhood would like a chat with the principal. But which one is more likely to get an immediate call-back?

If individual attention is the key--there are certainly ways in which this can be brought to scale effectively: greater use of individualized pacing using computers in various ways, systematized identification of risks/problems with systematic protocols of response.

But--I suspect that there is a good deal more going on in those schools than either exclusivity or smaller class size. I would guess that there are higher levels of both collegiality and quality control. One thing that smaller class sizes can offer to a staff that knows how to use it is increased planning and evaluation time. A stable staff, with eyes focused on producing the kinds of outcomes that will keep parents coming back, will dedicate time to reflection--teasing out what worked well from things that need improvement. Examining data is a part of this--although not the whole.

Teachers in some high-performing countries internationally have protected this kind of time by accepting larger class sizes. Three classes of forty, rather than five classes of twenty something allows for additional planning and reflection time. It is striking that in Japan textbooks are much smaller than ours. But, we rely heavily on textbooks to provide not only the content, but the whole lesson. In Japan lessons are crafted, not by every individual teacher, but according to a hierarchy of experienced teachers--defined not only by years of classroom experience, but also by participation in lesson study. One simply does not walk into a classroom post college and begin teaching out of one's own knowledge and experience. A young teacher may have far fewer planning expectations--relying on lessons written, tested and improved upon by those with more experience.

We do not have the capacity in this country to provide a Sidwell Friends experience to every child, so long as we define that experience primarily by classroom size. However, if we are so bold as to consider what else may be happening in a school like Sidwell Friends--and begin thinking about ways that these things can be scaled up--we may have something critical to add to school improvement.

A lot of this argument is implicitly assuming that parents who happen to be rich are therefore the best/wisest of parents, so if rich parents send their kids to school with small class sizes and lots of extra-curriculae activities, they must thereby be getting a better education for their students.
But this is doubtful. Consider for example http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/0/8/4/7/p108479_index.html (which finds that fully independent private schools don't do better than state schools in 19 OECD countries after controlling for student characteristics, and concludes that government-supported private schools only do better because of "school climate", not the resources.

This of course will not convince anyone who thinks that things like an attractive physical environment, small class sizes and drama and music teachers are more important than academic learning of course.

Over and over again, in the DOE own annual surveys, public school parents say their top priority for their children’s schools is smaller classes, followed by more enrichment. And yet they are completely ignored by an administration whose own children attend schools with just these attributes.

More evidence that parents are smart individually but stupid collectively. If you can get your own kid into Sidwell Friends, and if you can afford it, then great. He or she will be learning in small classes from great teachers.

But as the California class size reduction showed -- to the great embarrassment of class size proponents -- you can't reduce class size on a large scale and give everyone great teachers. Precisely the opposite: Decreasing class size in NYC would mean hiring a bunch of incompetent teachers. In California, minorities were the ones hurt the most by reducing class size: they end up getting stuck with the dumbest teachers as the few good teachers find more job opportunities elsewhere.

So raise of hands, everybody: How many people want their child in a class that is 1) smaller, but 2) has an dumb teacher?


It is irrelevant what people who can afford exclusive schools do with their children. The exercise is not about the quality of the education but the quality of the peer group.

And when we compare differences between private and public schools, a major difference might be that the private schools are not absurdly regulated, that their teachers can simply be highly qualified individuals rather than certified teachers, and so on.

The public school system is largely a closed, self-contained, and self-perpetuating group-think petrie dish.

Class size arguments based on increased individual attention to students, better academic results and so on have been tested for veracity by people who want to find that result and still could not.

Other studies look for intangible benefits and find traces so small that the cost-benefit ratio is prohibitive.

OTOH, what studies do show is that some teachers are really good at small classroom teaching, some are better at large classroom teaching, and so on. And union protocols that ignore these traits by rewarding senior teachers with smaller classes having brighter students do everyone a disservice.

Clearly, urban mega-schools have a different reason for class size arguments than suburban schools and that is classroom management of sometimes belligerent or hostile student populations.

Rather than argue class size, we need to talk about smaller, specialized schools and alternative interventions that identify and address these populations in innovative ways.

Or we can keep pretending that Obama fairy dust, higher than high standards, water-boarding tough expectations, and blah, blah,blah tough-guy-politician cliches will solve the issues.

- Frank Krasicki

Over the years I've spent hours researching the class size issue, here are the posts and the references;


Paper grading with meaningful feedback is enormously time-consuming. On a 3-4 page paper in my classes, I usually budget 10-12 minutes each.

I teach at a public university. Over the last two years or so, my total student load has gone up from 80+ to about 100+ per semester (which is far below the teaching load of a typical public high school teacher). Hence, to control workload, I cut back on the number of writing assignment.

Hypocrite that I am, I send my own kids to a private liberal arts college where the number of students per faculty are far less. By the end of their four years of many 15-30 student classes, they will routinely write twenty page papers which will get substantial feedback. At my public university, this will be done by only a few honors students. Class size matters a lot when generating feedback on writing.


I looked around your website, and found you “Bogus Issue #5: Small classes are good,” which is something I assume you are referring to. You make some good points there, but I do disagree with the assumptions behind some of them.

First, lecture is only a small part of learning at any level, and most teaching is not simply about “delivering uniform information.” If that were the case, t.v. and films would long-ago have displaced the classroom; instead they are complementary resources. The problem is that practice and correction are also important to teaching and learning, and this is done only on an individual level whether orally, or in writing. It is very labor intensive, as you point out. But I know of know field where it is not a necessary and time-consuming part of the process.

I also experienced California’s experiment with K-3 class size reduction via my daughter circa 1996-2000. Average test scores may not have increased, but the relationships between parents, teachers, and students did improve (ok, my evidence is only anecdotal, but is also rooted in the common-sensical notion that 19 kids are easier to deal with than 29, and that what is good for Sidwell Friends is good for my daughter, too). If this policy is to be retained past the current severe budget crisis, as with Diane and Deb, I will be very pleased.

Nevertheless, Margo/Mom also made the point that this experiment in CA may have been a “wash” because we do not have the capacity in terms of well-qualified teachers. She may indeed be right with her conclusion. But is this a reason to have a 30 student per class policy for K-3? Or is it reason to prepare more teachers, and provide in-service development to those that are already there?

Margo/Mom made the good point that other countries have larger class sizes (e.g. Japan). They do indeed, and it is likely that some things can be learned from their experiences.


Smaller class size is clearly a desirable variable of many parents as it implies a number of sought after outcomes.

As a life-long public school teacher I (we) chose to send our son (only child) to a parochial school for grades six through twelve. This was done for a number of reasons. (1) The public schools in our town (suburban middle class) were adequate in many respects but could not weed out the discipline problems that the parochial school simply would not tolerate. This was a major consideration. Kids who spent the bulk of their time interrupting the day and/or the educational experience of the rest of the class/school were not admitted and if admitted did not stick around for long. (2) We knew the other parents making the same choice as we made were genuinely committed to getting a quality education for their children. These parents were legitimately vested in their kids' education. (3) We were also guaranteed the academic experience would be more rigorous because the kids all had to take an entrance exam to get in. Those who did not perform to an undeclared level were simply rejected. This could be construed as elitist. I liked to think of it as selective. Again, this was a major consideration in our choice of this school. (4) We knew the overall quality of the school experience was superior to anything the local public school could offer.

As for smaller class sizes in the parochial school of choice - a complete non-factor. His average class size each year was in the upper twenties. It was not unusual for a number of his classes to be in the thirties. While lower classes might have been desirable, the kids/parents all seemed to get past that issue and pushed each other for the desired results.

Affordability was a consideration. It was not cheap. I took on a number of after school and summer jobs to help pay for it. It was time and money well spent.

Tony, my apology - I misunderstood, and was assuming you were talking about school/high school class size. Getting 20 extra students in a college class would certainly add to the strain.

Paul, I really appreciate your comment, as I am struggling myself with the decision whether to keep my kids in public school, and have thought of Catholic school as an option. I am an atheist more concerned with curriculum and school quality than with the possible religious underpinning of the program.

The other option I have is to keep going through the public school, and supplement any way I can what's not provided by the school.

Paul Hoss,

The people that try to make you feel guilty for taking your kids out of public school sound like Southern plantation owners rationalizing slavery. Government school nomenklatura, like slave masters, have a similar self-righteous 'enlightened' despotism, protected by law, that amounts to the real elitism.

Here is Thornton Stringfellow, Baptist Minister and slavery apologist, writing in the 1850s:

"My purpose, thus far, has been to show that African slavery in the United States is a social and political necessity, and to show that it is just to the African, as it accords to him, in a form best adapted to his nature, more than an equivalent for his service, or labor; and that it is in accordance with the obligation to 'do good to all men,' and to 'do to others as we would they should do unto us.'… "

Public schooling, after all, is a 'social necessity', right?


My reading of numerous studies (many international included) is that class size is a red-herring issue because it is too broad a brush.

In the lower elementary grades, small class sizes 5- 10 students should be mandatory AND the teacher in charge should be good with small group teaching.

By grade eight we should end rigorous testing of students at the state and federal levels because this is where children start their individual journeys through life. I have seen no cost effective argument that math or reading skills that are deficient can be remedied in high school.

The classes at the high school level can be as large or small as required (smaller in hands-on art, larger in art history for example). But here you'll notice that that kind of flexibility requires work rules that allow for sensible sizing without teacher seniority and jealousy issues getting in the way.

One comprehensive study of high school science recommended an ideal size of 24 students.

This of course assumes that the feds and states get out of the way since they skew everything toward test, test, test.

And it is this testing cancer that parents should rightfully look for alternatives to. If public schools are failing it is George W. Bush and Obama who are blame. Neither are smart enough to let education flower in a culturally diverse and rich way. We are in the era of the darkest days of public schooling.

By all means get your kids out. It isn't the kids, parents, or teachers who are failing. It is Soviet-style central planning that is killing America's kids.

- Frank Krasicki

Frank, I see your point regarding class sizes. But I'd like to express my doubts on decentralization for precollege education.

Towns, left to their own devices, simply do not have the expertise to make good curricular decisions. This is painfully obvious in disciplines like math, physics, chemistry, biology that either need years of uniform buildup, or rely one on another at various levels as prerequisites. The most suffering discipline on this account is physics, that is virtually absent until last year of high school (and even there it is optional).

Gleaning at your web site I noticed you are a school board member. You must be running into nonsensical arguments about curriculum all the time. In my town, for example, the Superintendent this year expressed his plan to bring up the 'academic' level in schools. Let me be clear - he's no reform darling, he's been around the block a few times. He knows the political limits in our town ed, where some things need to be said, some to be done, and the two at times diverge.

Per local newspaper report, his one mention of the word 'academic' was immediately corrected by two school board members, who pointed out children should not have their childhood stolen. This was even more dismaying, since one of these two board members is the only out of five who truly cares about the level of science ed in schools.

So in practice what happens is that the teachers control the curriculum, through an 'expert meeting' that parents have no access to (that's certainly the case of my town schools), and the school board supervises their choice. There is very little parents can do to insert themselves in the process - short of running for the School Board. And there is, in fact, an all to small group of parents that really cares about this.

Last spring, our town education board reviewed the math curriculum changes proposed by the teacher group. The syllabus is still not publicly available for middle school, and for the majority of high school tracks. The only feedback the board provided, regarding contents, was the request to include some sense of statistics in the classes. Statistics already is well represented; in fact probabilities are taught even before fractions are well understood. There was no one pointing out that to get statistics right, you have to go through functions, algebra, fractions, standard algorithms for the four operations - in other words, you need a well set academic base. Another squandered opportunity to bring the point home.

Local curriculum control is fine in places like colleges, that have good research expertise. But I painfully observe that no researcher in his field (physics, chemistry, math etc) has any say in local school boards or in school curricular decisions.


My wife and I are both Catholic but non-practicing. There have been a number of factors which led us to this point. All that aside, approximately twenty percent of the student population at his school were not Catholic. It didn't seem to bother the kids and it concerned the parents even less. The parents were primarily looking for the best educational experience they could get for their kids, and most believed they got it.


No one made me feel guilty about taking our son out of public school. It was our decision and I felt confident we were doing the right thing. The clincher for us: his fifth grade teacher gave a math test. My son got ten out of ten correct but the teacher gave him a zero because he didn't show his work. They were easy enough that he was able to do them in his head. We conferenced with the teacher, the principal, even the superintendent, all to no avail. That was enough for me.


Yes, I'm a school board member, former teacher, and a thirty year software engineer.

What most people don't know about localized control are things like the dissection of frogs is something high school students no longer do. The reason? a.) It takes time away from State testing content AND b.) during the anti-intellectual campaigns during the Bush administration the ultra-right was allowed to dictate curriculum reform. They objected to students learning about anything evolution-centric like what makes beings tick. This is in Connecticut, not Appalachia.

Soviet style centralized, uniform, iron-fist education is nothing to be emulated. Yes, local control can be awful but the poison of federal control ensures every public school will be intellectually toxic.

But do not believe that we are teaching science poorly. A recent study by John Hopkins I think found that our kids are a lot smarter in terms of math and science then we give them credit for.

Also Gardner (multiple intelligences) cites studies that show students who take physics forget what they've learned shortly thereafter. This manifests itself as never having had physics when getting testing as a university freshmen. Again, we are asking the wrong questions by being test-centric.

- Frank Krasicki

I am currently taking a course called “Education in a Democratic Society” at Kent State University. We have learned that throughout the course of education in the United States that business and government have the biggest influence on what is taught in public schools. We have also learned that standardized tests results, good or bad, are used pretty much used as the measure of education as a whole. Why is this? Isn’t there more to education than standardized test results?

Frank, I've responded to you in the next thread. The message was long, and is now 'held for approval' by the blog owner. I hope they'll let it through, otherwise I don't have a copy of it to repost it.

There is lots of misinformation and disinformation in the postings above about class size, but I will focus only on the comments on California's class size reduciton program. Every controlled study of the California class size reduction program – and there have been at least eight so far- showed significant gains in test scores from smaller classes.

One analysis, by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that in the five largest school districts other than Los Angeles, namely San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno, class size reduction raised the proportion of third graders who exceeded the national median by l0.5 % in math, and 8.4 % in reading, after controlling for all other factors. And though this report didn’t find significant gains in LA, others that looked at student level data – generally considered more reliable -- did find positive results.

Overall, the research on CA is more ambiguous than the STAR studies, if only because the state undertook several major reforms at about the same time, including adopting a new math curriculum, eliminating bilingual education, and implementing new accountability measures that make it difficult to isolate the effects of class size.

To further complicate the question, the state introduced a new test which made it impossible to compare scores before and after classes were reduced. Most schools also lowered class size so quickly it was difficult to find a control group to which results might be compared.

Yet even the most equivocal study — from the RAND/AIR consortium — showed significant gains in test scores from class size reduction for the one control group they could identify: third graders who remained in larger classes as compared to those who were in reduced size classes, though most of the students in the latter group had been in a small class for only one year or less.

The researchers found that the gains from being in a small class for a year or less in third grade were indeed statistically significant, though they said they were “small”. Yet the effect size was almost exactly the same as found in the STAR studies for students who were in a small class for only one year at the third grade level. The STAR studies found far larger gains, as might be expected, for students who were in smaller classes in Kindergarten and remained in a small class for several years thereafter.

In addition, the RAND/AIR Consortium made other methodological errors. For example, in order to eliminate the “unobservable” differences between schools that reduced class size and those that didn’t, the researchers subtracted the difference between fifth grade student test scores at both sets of schools, assuming that fifth graders would have been unaffected by the program. Yet as Fatih Unlu demonstrated in his paper on CSR in California, 18% of the fifth graders in those schools with smaller classes in the third grade had actually been in smaller classes themselves two years before.

As Unlu points out, if the CSR program had positive effects, adjusting the test score differences of the third grade CSR participants and non-participants by subtracting the test scores of these higher-achieving 5th graders unfairly lessened the estimated effect of class size reduction.

In his study of the impact of smaller classes in California, Unlu avoided some of the methodological problems encountered by other researchers who were stymied by the fact that the state tests were new. He instead analyzed pre-existing NAEP scores for California 4th graders in 1996 and compared them to the results in 2000, since the earlier group had no experience of smaller classes, while the latter group had experienced smaller classes for several years before entering the fourth grade.

The NAEPs are also considered more reliable than state standardized tests, since no high stakes are attached. By using two different statistical methods, Unlu finds very substantial gains from smaller classes -- .30 of a standard deviation.

In addition, many people have commented that the number of uncertified teachers rose as a result of CSR. Yet none of the studies – including the analysis done by the RAND/AIR group -- could find any evidence that these teachers were any less effective. In fact, more recently, Robert Gordon et al. wrote that “When the Los Angeles Unified School District needed to triple its hiring of elementary teachers following the state’s class-size reduction initiative in 1997, the district was able to do so without experiencing a reduction in mean teacher effectiveness, even though a disproportionate share of the new recruits were not certified.”

And while anecdotal reports to this day claim that certified and experienced teachers fled high needs schools to go teach elsewhere when class size was reduced, there is no evidence for this. To the contrary, follow-up studies from the CSR capstone report show that after rising temporarily, teacher migration rates in the early grades fell dramatically in all types of schools to far lower levels than before class sizes were reduced, and most sharply in those schools with large numbers of poor students. In fact, after CSR, teacher migration rates began to converge in all these schools.

This finding is not altogether surprising, given that for the first time, teachers in schools with large number of poor students had a real chance to succeed, their desire ed to flee elsewhere was substantially alleviated. Several other studies have shown consistently lower levels of teacher attrition after class sizes are reduced. Here is a synergistic effect that would be expected to enhance teacher quality over and above the direct impact of a smaller class on improved learning, as lower rates of attrition tend to increase the overall experience level and thus effectiveness of the teaching force over time.


Business and government are the primary culprits for the way the system works. Your course is generously called Education in a Democratic Society.

The schools have become a battleground for technology consumerism. Much of the so-called philanthropic efforts being deployed in schools are self-serving. We are sold the idea that public schools are failing in teaching math and science, a myth that is echoed by largely complicit "business leaders".

The reason? Multi-billion dollar markets for computers and techno-education-crap that include tests, test-prep, and test-fear, test-fear remedies, and so on. It's a very lucrative cottage industry.

Yes, there is far more to education than testing. Most of it outlawed in the US. The incestuous influence of politics and political lobbyists have sanitized education of anything having to to with the good of the children.

And the Obama administration is only pig-piling on to really horrendous policies that I fear will contribute to the death of this country.

Frank Krasicki

BTW: I welcome guest bloggers on my blog.

Email me at [email protected] and I'll add you as a guest author or publish your post with attribution.

Leonie, thanks for posting such a thoughtful message on the issue of class size reduction in California. It prompted me to look up more info, and I've come cross a Brookings paper of Peter Schrag. The reality is very nuanced.

A reduction of primary school class sizes in California from an average of 29 to 20 starting with 1996 has overall been a good thing. Teacher quality, however, has been an issue.

"In many schools, the great majority of them schools serving poor and minority students, the percentage of inexperienced teachers, many of them (at least) formally unqualified – interns, people on emergency credentials -- shot up. [...] Five years later, in 2005, as the underqualified got their credentials, or were replaced by others, the number of underprepared teachers had declined to about seven percent. But students in the lowest quartile in achievement still had a 40 percent chance of having had at least one underprepared teacher and a 30 percent chance of having had more than one."

The class size reduction happened at the same time with standards-based curricular and accountability reforms in wake of the 'fuzzy math' wars, for which reason studies have found it hard to attribute the increase in student achievement. Most interesting conclusion: "teachers in the smaller classes had more opportunities to work with small groups or individual students, and they reported fewer behavioral problems and fewer students “off task.” But there appeared to be little change in teaching strategies or learning activities."

Schrag mentions Unlu's paper, pointing out that it might well have the right conclusions even if it has some methodological problems of its own.


Not sure if you will see this post. Maybe I should not have delayed it.

I am still waiting to meet the "best and wisest" parent. You mention that you are weary of hearing "mind-reading" teachers (many of whom are "non-parents") "expound" about what parents want. For being the anamoly, I highly suspect more teachers have had to listen to you, than the reverse.

Demonstrating the knowledge of how to use the reproductive system may technically qualify someone as a baby-maker, it DOES NOT account for the skills necessary for PARENTING.

Some might reasonably argue "being a parent" is, itself, a poor decision. The costs of raising a child are no mystery. If one delivers a child into this world without having the necessary funds already at hand, exactly how "responsible" of a decision is that?

We foreclose on mortgages of people who, for whatever reasons, cannot meet their obligation. We repossess vehicles when people do not pay on their loans. But when a parent can't figure out how to send their child to school with a sandwich.... WE... those of us without children.... PAY FOR IT.

Being a parent is about the only action in society for which no one is truly held accountable for their mistakes.

This would explain why more children have fewer social skills. This lack of social skills manifests itself as a barrier to sharpening academic skills. The more problems, the fewer a teacher can properly address.

We are now teaching the children of the self-proclaimed "ME" generation (to which, if you are of child-rearing age, you are also a member). On the whole, it has been quite a self-fulfilling prophecy because, although these "parents" now have children, it's still ALL ABOUT THEM.

No one, except for maybe politicians seeking re-election, EVER tried selling the idea that government (particularly NATIONAL government) would be all things to all people. We collectively pull our resources and try to use them to provide SOME things to ALL people. Schools are the epitome. IDEA, NCLB,and Race to the Top were promises imposed upon teachers by people who had (and have) no intention of fulfilling them.

The purpose of a public school system is NOT, and NEVER HAS BEEN, to fulfill every need of every child. Do the math. The places where more chidren have the most needs are generally the places where more "parents" have the least.

Americans have CHOSEN to be capitalists. Tired of the "hit or miss" quality of teachers your child has experienced? FINE.... Make sure that the profession pays well enough to attract the quality people you seek. Supply and demand. When there are more quality applicants than there is need, the price will come back down.

Are YOU willing to give up even MORE of your money for the education of someone else's child?

I dare you to go to your doctor and tell him/her that you are only going to pay what YOU feel is the appropriate amount for a life-saving medical need.

That is exactly what people do when they:
1. do not FULLY participate in EVERY direct action of their LOCAL school board
2. vote for politicians who vow to lower the costs of government
3. or, as a majority of Americans, do not consistently participate in choosing their government, if at all

Go EXPOUND at your neighbors and get off the teachers' backs.

Haimson conspiciously fails to mention Jepsen and Rivkin's definitive analysis:


This paper investigates the effects of California’s billion-dollar class-size-reduction program on student achievement. It uses year-to-year differences in class size generated by variation in enrollment and the state’s class-size-reduction program to identify both the direct effects of smaller classes and related changes in teacher quality. Although the results show that smaller classes raised mathematics and reading achievement, they also show that the increase in the share of teachers with neither prior experience nor full certification dampened the benefits of smaller classes, particularly in schools with high shares of economically disadvantaged, minority students.

Frank, here is the lost post. If state mandated standardized tests have had undesired effects, it would be good to look at the reasons for this rather than outright dismiss them.

There is a very nice powerpoint on the web explaining that school tests are in principle of two kinds: 'interim' assessments and 'formative' assessments. You'll see that Obama's Race to the Top initiative makes the same distinction (although it could make it clearer).

The interim assessments have benchmarking as primary goal, providing a general idea to policy makers, parents, and schools where the students are with respect to where they should be. Interim assessments are norm referenced over multiple years and allow you to plot nicely things like the achievement gap.

The poster child of interim assessments is the NAEP - the 'Nation Report Card'. As you well know, this test tells us that despite many reforms since the 1970s not much has changed in the level of math and English language - for all students, and also between the various ethnic groups. The NAEP uses statistical sampling to select the schools and the students tested. There are no direct consequences attached to schools, teachers, students if they fail on the NAEP. There is no incentive for teachers to 'teach to the NAEP test'.

Formative assessments, on the other hand, are designed to have an educational value in themselves for the student. They tend to exclude multiple choice questions, and to include open ended items, prodding students to express themselves. They are graded within a couple of days. They provide feedback for teachers on how to adjust teaching on an ongoing basis.

Term exams in college, for example, are formative assessments. And 'teaching to the formative test' is a good thing.

Formative exams can be used well to gauge the relative level of the students taking that one exam on that one day. They are too customized to be norm-referenced across multiple years, to plot a trend. Grading formative assessments cannot be automated, and requires vastly more effort than grading interim assessments.

In effect, there is a dichotomy between interim and formative assessments. There is a Heisenberg principle at work here - the more interim, the less formative the test is.

The tragedy with our statewide standardized tests is that they are too much interim, and too nonformative.

Frank - on the dissection of frogs, it is a good thing to have as long as it is used to illustrate the subject matter content that is studied.

On anti-intellectualism in our society, it pains me to observe that it's a double whammy - it comes both from the left and from the right.

The Bush education agenda was not driven by right wingers, but was a compromise driven by centrist democrats. This is documented among other places in No Child Left Behind?, Chap. 2 from the Brookings Institute. Sen. Kennedy sponsored the NCLB, and education was a lifelong preoccupation of his.

Yes it is a scandal that Evolution is pushed in places out of the curriculum. I would not let that deter us from observing that Science in general is in a miserable state in schools.

On the subject of Soviet style centralized education, I enjoyed Admiral Hyman G. Rickover's Education and Freedom. The Soviets had plenty of good content in math, physics, chemistry school classes. Their social sciences and history, however, were politicized along the party line. Exact sciences were also politicized to some extent. In biology, you could get fired as a college prof in the 1950's if you talked about Genetics and DNA, since that contradicted some other darling theory of the time.

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is correct, but should not be used to conclude that all forms of intelligence have the same value. If students who take physics forget what they've learned shortly thereafter, that is an argument to teach physics better - not to remove it alltogether.

Rory, the issue is not that parents are bad, or that teachers are bad. This bashing of one group or another is very counterproductive, and serves to obscure the problem more than help anything. Education problems are institutional. Fix the institutions, and we'll get things going with the same people.

The public school my children attend and those of relatives aren't responsive across the board to what we parents want. That's why so many moms homeschool. If they can't afford all the tutoring, then all they can do is homeschool.
At my garage sale this summer, the most frequent topic was where our kids went to tutoring. There's Orton or Wilson for reading, the Kumon Center for math, and some older teachers who still know how to teach phonics. It's costing an arm and a leg to make up for what my child doesn't learn in school. What about parents who can't afford that.
This isn't tutoring to get him into the top college. This is tutoring to learn basic reading, spelling, and math that should be taught in school. He was tested and has an average IQ, but school seems to be playtime. The Vietnamese women who lives next door says that she actually tells her kids that school is playtime and teh schoolwork that she gives them at home in the evening is their work. Doesn't surprise me. I slid through school without having to do much, but it seems like they do even less now. By nightime kids are tired and not at their best to learn. I've seen parents try to get the school to teach more "stuff" but they get blackballed by the school. It's just easier to quietly pay for the tutoring. The schools might as well have a high wall around them. They do exactly what they want and the school board is their rubber stamp.


That's why we sent our son to parochial school even though I was a Massachusetts public school teacher. Public schools unfortunately have a monopoly mindset. Historically, there's been little to no competition for them. That's why I'm a big charter school fan. Public schools believe if you don't like their product, tough. Go somewhere else and see if they care.


Great post. "The schools might as well have a high wall around them. They do exactly what they want and the school board is their rubber stamp." You are darn right.

Political privilege creates a disconnect between responsibility and accountability. But these unions, admins, boards and other cowardly interest groups certainly come out from behind the wall to demand more and more tax money while delivering less and less, don't ya agree?

It's legal plunder really.


In conversations with very good teachers I am told that State tests do not reveal anything new about the students to the teachers. Teachers really do know a lot about who they're teaching and the capacity of those students.

These tests feed into the idea that all students develop identically and if they aren't homogeneous, interchangeable humanoids then the schools (parents, et al) are failures. Not only that, but if Johnny and Jane deviate from such a norm then there's something *wrong*. At face value this is nonsense.

It devalues the unique individual to literally *equalize* every kid (close the *gap*). This is bat-shit crazy in America.

As for the dissection of frogs, the loss of this exercise for the sake of practicing test-taking techniques eliminates an exercise that turned curious students into doctors, veterinarians, biologists, and health researchers. That's more than tragedy. That's a country in decline with a wholesale loss of common sense.

I mentioned Gardner not because of multiple intelligences but because of the unique phenomenon he mentioned. That is that physics students revert to belief systems about how things work even after taking physics courses. There is nothing wrong with the way the courses are taught! This is just a weird by-product mistaken by colleges as a lack of H.S. schooling instead of a documented anomaly in retaining certain knowledge. Read this again if you think it's not being taught correctly, it's an anomaly not a teaching issue.

Yes, Kennedy co-sponsored NCLB but it was the Bush family that introduced the fraudulent drivers that poisoned the program. It should be mercifully ended immediately. IMO, it is a human rights violation systematically perpetrated on children.

And, yes, becoming a parent uniquely qualifies no one to suddenly become an expert on schools or children. As PT Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute." That too often tells us a lot about mom and dad's understanding and advocacy of issues.

School Boards do not have to be bobble-headed idiots and sometimes aren't. But the Feds and States are far more idiotic than the worst school boards in this country. Listen to Arne Duncan's Orwellian speeches and his George W. Bush policies - 'splain that to me?

Frank Krasicki

I do not fall into the category of a teacher who feels this is a one-sided responsibility/acountability issue. I know that some of my colleagues made the wrong career choices. I see that a re-tooling on all sides is required. However, I do take offense and do feel the need to defend the profession when attacked.

Why do administrators and teachers build walls? Because it is now that parents more often refuse to believe that their child could be at fault for something. It's the "Me" ego.

We do not get as involved with the students and/or their parents as much because we see all to often, well-intended teachers put through a professional nightmare by the mere accusations (true or not) of a single child, or parent. And.... the teacher can never prevail.... never. So, if we love what we do, we have to chose certain limitations in order to protect ourselves.

A female teacher in a local district has been fired and SHE must fight the revocation of her license because a boy accused her of sexual harrassment over an argument that ensued because she was enforcing the district's "no pants below your butt" dress code policy. She did not touch the boy, she did not curse or use derogatory language. The boy, who violated the policy... received no consequence.

Reproductive rights (aka parenting) is also an institution - of our culture. Yet, no one is held accountable. The courts do not hold parents accountable when their children make mistakes... but they sure do hold the school personnel accountable when a child is "allowed" to make a mistake during school time. Or... when a school violates "rights" (intended or not).

No one wishes bad things to happen to good families.... but....Is it really the responsibility of a school district to pay $300,000 per year for the education of one child, while all others receive the typical $8,000 ?
Do we require a check into the medical history of the family to see if there were potential genetic problems that would suggest pregnancy is not the best choice? - No
Do we check into the possibility that the parents were behaving irresponsibly during pregnancy? - No
Do we insist that local governments pay for the needs of children when it is quite possible THE PARENTS caused or contributed to the obstacles the child will face? - Yes
Do we insist on forcing local governments to pay for unfunded federal mandates? _ Yes
Under "least restrictive environment" such distortions to the intent of the law happen quite often.
We now go so far as to allow parents to anonymously drop off their unwanted children at police and fire stations - No questions asked.

What is also being institutionalized is the erroneous notion that as parents become more irresponsible, schools will be able to pick up the slack. But somehow... we have MORE than enough money to not only educate children, but to now, raise them. RIDICULOUS.

I used to have to bring a lunch to school. We had no cafeteria. Then:
1. When I was in elementary school, we started providing HOT lunch.... not just a lunch.... but a HOT lunch.

2. Later, it was "kids are arriving at school hungry" and they can't be expected to function on empty stomachs....so we began breakfast programs.... instead of tracking down the parents who won't make a bowl of oatmeal in the morning.

3. Now we have school districts which provide dinner.

Not only is the school required to provide meals.... responsible citizens must subsidize the meals for children of less responsible people. I am sorry.... there are RARE instances where people have to choose NOT to afford Peanut Butter, Jelly, and some Bread. My father lost everything when the coal mines began closing.... we did NOT need to seek public assistance.... I wore the hand-me-downs of my brother who is 10 years older - it was emabarrassing and uncomfortable.... my parents had wisely prepared for financial hardship.

The amount of fraud on free and reduced lunch is ASTOUNDING. Because Title I was given such a financial boost with the "Stimulus", schools are now sending personnel to the homes of children, not to discuss behavior or academics, but to try and convince parents to fill out those forms. If the cafeteria were closed with the exception of lunch time... OH THE MONEY WE WOULD SAVE.

There was a time when certain basic skills were acquired at home.
1. When I attended kindergarten, it was not free, and was offered only through private organizations and it was not mandatory
2. Now it is becoming mandatory
3. It is now being considered, in several states, to make Pre-K compulsory.

The communities offered several after school (starting at 3:30 in the afternoon) activities that were organized, and run, BY PARENTS
1. Little league and other sports/recreation activities
2. Cub scouts, girl scouts

Now it is being suggested that schools remain open longer hours to provide wholesome places for kids to stay until their parent finishes work because the communities are no longer safe. And the coach... gets paid the equivalent of less than $20 a PAY CHECK... not less than that per hour..... PER PAY CHECK

These are just a couple examples of the social ills that will continue to snowball as long as the government (particularly the federal government) continues to MANDATE that children should not be impacted by the choices of their parents. As long as generations receive such things, the more future generations will believe they are entitled to them.

That.... quite simply, is greed.

It is not IMPOSSIBLE for a family to survive on a single income.... it is just too modest of an existence for most. Schools CANNOT, as institutions themselves, solve:
A. the lack of good adult, reproductive decisions
B. the lack of good parenting
B. the increasing lack of community spirit

The schools are not going to be able to overcome those problems. Yet, most, if not all, of the talk is about reforming and/or "fixing" schools and the people who work in them.

Schools are a reflection of their communities.... not the reverse.

Can reform improve schools.... maybe.... but what good is it if the people being served do not reform themselves also? Show me a politician with the guts to call out the community for the lack of proper care of its children and insist that:
1. the kids get to bed on time
2. the parents help with homework
3. the parents provide three square meals a day ALL YEAR ROUND
4. parents DO NOT take part in recreational drinking or drugs prior to having children, nor until after those children reach adulthood
5. parents ensure their children are involved in academic and athletic activities every day, outside of school time

AND.... insist they document every action and explain how it was designed to improve the lives of their children. And promise/follow through with extra remediation when someone tells them they did not do something just right.

And Rory, I guess your point would be that there are no good or wise parents? I often wonder if the children of teachers fare better than those stuck with us other poor slobs who are merely parents.

Rory, your message is heart felt, and I would only add that part of the problem is our abhorrence from being too judgmental with the bad parenting and the broken families we see around us.

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