Size Doesn’t Matter?

Two years ago I reviewed the literature on the effects of school size on academic performance and social development of students. The research, a lot of it available through the National Middle School Association (NMSA), seemed incontrovertible: given the evidence that students in small schools do so much better than students in large schools, it seemed morally questionable to put kids in big schools said one study. It was a bolder conclusion than the other studies, but nonetheless consistent with all the rest of the research. But now eSchoolNews reports that “after investing billions in U.S. education, the [Gates Foundation’s] new CEO says better teachers, not smaller class sizes, are key.”

The two bodies of research seem to contradict each other at first. But I think–I’m not sure, I’d really like to read more of the Gate’s data–the two are looking at the same thing. I need to go back over my original review to be sure, too. But I wonder if the reported effectiveness of small schools is only indirectly a result of their size. Perhaps small schools, by virtue of a flatter organization and more intimate work environment somehow recruit, develop and retain better teachers more easily than large schools. The question we need to answer is “Are there proportionally more great teachers in small schools than large schools?”

In the meantime, here’s what all great schools do, according to the NMSA:

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In any case, I’m glad to read the comments Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes.

Raikes talked of a study of the Los Angeles Unified School District after an initiative to reduce class sizes led to a liberalization of rules on who could be hired to teach.

He said the district found that whether a teacher had a certificate had no effect on student achievement.

Raikes said the district found that putting a great teacher in a low-income school helped students advance a grade and a half in one year. An ineffective teacher in a high-income school held student achievement to about half a grade of progress in a year.

“We really have to focus classroom by classroom,” said Jim Morris, chief of staff at the L.A. district. “Every teacher matters, just like every student matters.”

Morris said the most important factor to successful schools is excellent teachers and supporting what they do in the classroom.

We can all watch a test of the Gates’ Foundations data at a new charter school opening next fall in Washington Heights in New York City.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries [$125k] will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.

I’m detecting a current of conversation about teacher quality in all the web 2.0 chatter and it’s exciting to hear. The web resists–even subverts–institutionalization, says Clay Shirky. In a “here-comes-everybody” world, teachers become more autonomous and accountable and I think that is a good thing because it forces a higher standard of teaching. When the standard is low, we need institutional structures to control quality. But when the standards are high we can instead rely on  professionalism to do the same.

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