Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Class-Size-does-not-matter and other myths about education in France and the U.S.

The other day, as I was having breakfast, I almost choked hearing Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, on NBC evening news :

"Class size … is virtually meaningless," Daniels said. "Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results. Put a poor teacher in front of a small class; do not expect the kids to learn. In those Asian countries I mentioned, classrooms of 35 students are common, and they're beating our socks off." (

As a language teacher myself, I know from experience that you cannot teach a language to students in a c ass of 36 kids as well as to those in a class of 25 kids. It is just common sense.

Here are research results that debunk the myth that class size does not matter. Yes, Asian countries have larger class sizes but there may be cultural differences that cannot apply to western students - better discipline, peer mentality, strong family and community ties, social pressure to succeed, etc...

In fact, even more tellingly, a class of 36 kids in an affluent neighborhood will result in better scores than 25 students in a poor neighborhood. Class size does matter because you need smaller classes in underprivileged areas where discipline is harder and attention span much smaller.

What is implied by Mitch Daniels in his comment is even more important than what is said. If you can expect good results from a good teacher, it means that (the bad) teachers are to be blamed for the results of their students. My experience tells me that good students also make good teachers. In fact, the social economic background is a more important factor that will determines a student's performance than the teacher.

But even if in Asia, class size does not matter as much, a study shows that student’s individual and family background is a key determinant of educational performance.

Class size may not be the only factor that determines student performance but it is certainly one of them in our western world anyway. Of course, there is budget pressure and teachers have been feeling it both in France and (in a more dramatic fashion) in the United-States.

In both our countries the deficit has been excuse to put forward some right-wing anti-teacher agenda - the ideology that teachers have it easy with their vacationq and short school days with the underlying idea that they do not really even deserve what they make. at the taxpayer's expense. This of course always comes from people who do not teach and have idea what teaching really is.

This week, Jon Stewart once again outdid himself by ridiculing the hypocrisy of those right-wingers attacking public school teachers while defending Wall Street people and bankers in the same breath.

The other interesting part is that very similar arguments can be heard over here in France as well - things like :
- Teachers know the money is coming anyway so they don't have the incentive to do a good job/ How hard would you work if you couldn't get fired
=> This implies that teachers are only in for the money, which would really be stupid on their part - it also shows a very material view of human beings whose only incentive is money)
- It's a part-time job, they're done at 2:30 in the afternoon and they don't work summers.
=> Except if you consider grading and preps.... and yes, they get summers off so what?
- They don't get as much as people on Wall Street because "they don't work as much". The hedge-fund manager does not get paid by the state.
What about bailouts? Stewart then shows how those same people are against the government limiting salary of CEO at bailed-out by public money firms.

Why? Because that could create a "talent exodus" and it is "not a good way of attracting talent".... So what about paying teachers better to attract talent? It may not be their greatest incentive but it would certainly make them more respected in our material world if they got paid better.

The defense of the Wall Street people and bankers is that "they create jobs". Really? That remains to be proven.
What is certain though is that it is the Wall Street guys and the bankers that cause the financial metldown and the economic crisis, NOT the teachers.

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