Excellent post from Laura about improving schools. She makes several school-improvement suggestions, in response to an article in the NYTimes arguing that all you need for good schools is good teachers and small classes. As Laura points out, the research on class size is completely inconclusive. I’d add two points. The first is that even if class size matters we have no reason to believe that there are no threshold effects; it may be pretty much as easy to teach 30 as 25, and much easier to teach 22, for all we know. Incremental across-the-board reductions in size are expensive, and may have miniscule benefits. Second, I have a feeling (based only on anecdotal evidence) that small classes, in making it more feasible for teachers to individualize instruction, may encourage them to engage in trendy, experimental, but ultimately less effective teaching methods.
All Laura’s comments are worth thinking about, and this one hits the nail on the head:
I would also work on job programs for poor areas, on parenting classes, on adult education, and complete overhaul of some neighborhoods.
The idea that you can provide an excellent education for children raised in broken communities, with high levels of unemployment and family separation is, well, silly. Its no accident that the consistent high performers in PISA tests are countries with low levels of inequality and very low levels of child poverty.
The one thing Laura doesn’t point out (so I’ll add) is that it is incredibly naive to think that all you need is good teachers. How good a teacher is depends on 3 variables: i) that person’s qualities; ii) the fit between that person’s qualities and the needs of his/her students and iii) how well the institution as a whole is managed. Incompetent and/or ill-willed adminstrators are entirely capable of preventing much learning from going on. Think of the way that American public school lessons are routinely interrupted, without warning, by administrators who think they have an ‘important’ announcement to make over the PA system. Important announcements about the football results, or the availability of the school T-shirt or…well, you get the idea.