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Jonah Rockoff just published a paper looking at early 20th century research into the impacts of class size on student performance. His conclusion is similar to what contemporary research on class size tends to find – that there is extremely mixed evidence of the impact of class size on performance.  His review of early 20th century field experiments reveals that:

Moreover, this research produced little evidence to suggest that students learn more in smaller classes, which stands in contrast to some, though not all, of the most recent work by economists.

This was in the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (gated).

3 Responses to “More Evidence on Class Size”

  1. Cathy M says:

    All I know about class size is from experience. In elementary school our graduating class was 38. All through high school, we had 60 students. I received the best education. Of course, back in the ’50’s students were taught to respect the teachers and our parents were involved in our education.

  2. wintercow20 says:

    Indeed. And as my wife is now taking a course on Developmental Psych tells me… the “experts” believe that the way we were raised was “abhorrent” back then. No wonder why our schools are performing poorly today – it was hard to coddle in a class of 60, and pretty easy to do so in a class of 15.

  3. Harry says:

    This is a fascinating topic, Wintercow.

    As a teacher and student, there is no question that class size matters for certain subjects, at particular times, for certain students. Smaller is generally better.

    My freshman algebra class was five, taught by a gifted math teacher who could maintain eye contact as he wrote backwards on the blackboard, making sure we got everything until we moved on to the next factoring trick. Miss a sick day, you miss a mile, and none of us missed a day.

    Newton probably would not have needed to be so lucky.

    When I taught English fresh out of college, I was lucky to have a department head who helped me teach, but in a pinch I reverted back to the way I was taught by spending fifteen minutes to a half hour reading and editing each of my students’ papers which I assigned to them. At the time it was all I could do to teach them literature and grammar and writing, coach sports, and supervise them. My class load was roughly 55 to 60 students.

    I remember thinking teaching English was special — nothing except spelling and vocabulary tests could be evaluated and graded quickly, unlike chemistry tests where the answer was 3.25 moles of flourine, plus or minus .04 moles. Surely the science department could test the effectiveness of its program with multiple choice tests.

    But then the chem teacher taught 65-70 students total, not 30X4 students.

    It turned out that our school provided a rich education for nearly everyone, who were not the elite of Andover, but who were by design average kids, on the average. My part in the whole process was to please the parents of these kids, so they would continue to pay tuition in addition to their real estate taxes, which for many parents was a significant amount.

    I’m very interested in what developmental psychology professors find abhorrent in such a system, and how they think you can teach writing to 120 kids per semester, unless you use triage. This gets back to what we talked about — hiring an Oxford tutor for $100,000 (includes Cadillac Healthcare, housing, and some meals for that price) to teach 20 kids in a house with a nice yard.

    Perhaps Mrs Wintercow’s research might lead to the subject of “Span of Control”, which refers to how many people an effective manager of anything can ably manage. In my experience, the answer depends on many variables, including the abilities of the managers and managees and whatever incentives they have to produce a desired result.

    Thanks for raising the topic, perfesser!

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