In a Washington Post op-ed and speech yesterday to the National Governors' Association, Bill Gates floated the idea of dealing with state education budget cuts by increasing the class sizes of the most effective teachers:
What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.
This is not an unreasonable proposal, but it is certainly a politcally difficult one. As I've written before, the free market education reform movement has long struggled to attract grassroots support in neighborhoods and among parents; loudly advocating for larger class sizes will only make this problem worse. In New York City, Newark, Denver, and every other district whose school reforms I've covered over the past year, class size remains the single most salient issue for community groups, uniting folks no matter how they feel about school closings, charter school co-locations, or standardized testing.
Simply put--and decades of polling on class size backs this up--Americans love the idea of their children getting more one-on-one attention from teachers. Indeed, OECD data shows the U.S. has one of the world's largest gaps between average public school class size (23.6 sstudents) and average private school class size (19.4 students), suggesting that small class size is one of the main perks affluent Americans are paying for when they pull their kids out of public schools.
All that said, it's certainly true that small class size is not clearly correlated with high achievement--and neither is large class size. Take a look at this OECD chart.
Note that the U.S. already has larger than average class sizes. Of the nations whose class sizes are even larger than ours, Korea, Japan, and Australia are clearly outperforming us; they each rank in the PISA top 10 for multiple academic subjects. Yet other top-performing nations, including Finland, Singapore, and Canada, have made lowering class sizes a cornerstone of their education policy.
Since small class sizes alone don't ensure high achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests, it might make sense to argue that maintaining small classes should not be a priority during lean economic times. The problem is that American parents are concerned not only with their children's test scores, but also with their day to day experiences at school. Parents want their children to have meaningful personal relationships with educators--the sorts of life-changing experiences many of us remember fondly when we think back on our favorite teachers, whether they helped us score higher on a chemistry exam or just got us through a difficult time at home.
Since lowering class sizes is extremely popular, it would take a major public reeducation effort to convince Americans that larger classes are better classes. My hunch is that this issue would not be a political winner. Just remember: There are ways to improve teacher quality through better training, evaluation, and professional development, while simultaneously keeping class sizes steady. It's called progressive taxation, and for some reason, even Democrats are terrified of talking about it.