Teaching has been quite a bit in the news recently. For instance, The Economist published an article on "How to be top" in its October 20th, 2007 issue, which summarizes the findings of a study by McKinsey on how some countries top the (primary and secondary) education rankings again and again. "Those findings raise what ought to be a fruitful question: what do the successful lot have in common? Yet the answer to that has proved surprisingly elusive. Not more money. Singapore spends less per student than most. Nor more study time. Finnish students begin school later, and study fewer hours, than in other rich countries."
An often-proposed remedy to the poor quality of teachers is to increase their salary. But "if money were so important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries - Germany, Spain and Switzerland - would presumably be among the best. They aren't." What the countries with the best educational systems have in common is that they make teacher selection an extremely competitive process. "Singapore [...] accepts only the number [of would-be teachers into teacher training programs] for which there are places. [...] Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them)."
I particularly enjoyed reading about the possible explanatory variables, which make sense but in the end might have the opposite effect to what was intended - what is wrong with a small class size? The article notes: "Almost every rich country has sought to reduce class size lately. Yet all other things being equal, smaller classes mean more teachers for the same pot of money, producing lower salaries and lower professional status. [...] After primary school, there seems little or no relationship between class size and educational achievement."
Class size might well be a myopic (and wrong) proxy for the school budget. If the school has enough money to hire more well-prepared, well-qualified teachers, it is hard to see how keeping the class small would not benefit students: teachers know their name, demand more accountability. One thing the article does not mention is that, rather than hiring more teachers at a lower salary, the school district might also require teachers to teach more sections with fewer students in each. Parents are happy - classes are small - but teachers spend more time repeating the same lesson to the same total number of students, which increases fatigue, decreases prep time for the next lecture as well as the time the teacher could spend helping to her students after class. And let's not even talk about the likelihood of a teacher knowing a student's name when he sees hundreds of faces day after day, even if they show up in blocks of only fifteen.
I have been thinking about that same issue for some time in the context of introductory college courses, because of the importance in the all-powerful US News rankings of small class size - it seems easy to game the system by having instructors teach more, thus diluting the energy they would spend on a more limited number of sections. Keeping classes small is a well-intentioned policy that, pushed to the extreme (US News counts as small a class that has 19 students or less - sorry, 20 won't do), might end up doing more harm than good. A better measure to quantify the time instructors really spend on each student would be the number of students each professor teaches every semester. Maybe in 2009?