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How Class Size Policy Plays Out in the Real World


Bill Gates recently gave a TED talk on state budgets, and touched on the impact they will have on class size. His remarks provided helpful context for his previous statements about increasing class size for great teachers, so they can have a positive impact on more students.

As he explains in this TED talk, Gates is not arguing for increased class size as a standalone strategy, but as a necessary response to budget cuts. In other words, he's saying we can be smart about this by purposefully placing the most students with the best teachers.

As Anthony Cody points out in his great response to Gates' recent WaPo Op-Ed,

What is actually happening is that, partly buoyed by your suggestion that class sizes should not matter, there are going to be wholesale increases in class size across the board, for every teacher, at every grade level.

Cody is speaking specifically to the situation in Oakland Public Schools, but he's illustrating a broader trend of class size increases nationwide. There's another angle on this that I'd like to explore in depth—namely, that class actual class sizes have little resemblance to class size policy.

In most school districts, funding is in some part driven by an expected class size, so that it's possible for schools to maintain reasonable class sizes given their number of students and level of funding. Detroit is making headlines for projecting class sizes of up to 60 students due to severe budget shortfalls. A district in Florida is making headlines for "lab" classes that skirt state class size limits by using online learning and facilitators rather than teachers.

But what actually determines the size of any given class? Funding plays a critical role—in any universe, fewer teachers means larger classes—but often other factors are at work. For example, Nancy Flanigan often had 70+ students per class—because she taught instrumental music. Clearly, the subject one teaches impacts class size.

But in many districts with geographic assignment plans, the primary driver of class size is enrollment. If you have three 5th grade classes and 78 students, you're going to have about 26 students per class—it's nothing more complicated than division. If more students move in, class size goes up; if students move away, class size goes down. There is sometimes flexibility to do things differently, e.g. to cap enrollment or create new classes, but often class size is driven purely by the number of students who show up.

When politicians talk about lowering class size, they are often funding only the expense of hiring additional teachers, not the expense of adding classroom space or moving students from overloaded schools to schools with excess capacity. As a result, class size is rarely adjusted so simply.

What policymakers and the public need to know, in this time of slashed budgets and surging enrollment, is that the best-intended policies like Gates' suggestion about putting more kids "in front of the best teachers" (as if teachers were movie screens) don't play out as intended. Policymakers: When in doubt, visit a school, talk to educators, and find out what will happen if you "selectively" increase class size or otherwise attempt to make simplistic tweaks to complicated systems.

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