The Debate of Small Class-Size
In an ideal world- students, teachers and guardians- everybody will prefer a small class-size to a large class-size at any level of education. Small classes are easier to administrate. Teachers can give more attention to the needs of individual students inside and outside the classroom. It is generally assumed small class-size is associated with improved students' performance. This has made class-size reduction (CSR) popular among students, guardians and policy makers.
Most economic theories rest on the assumption that other factors that can influence the observed phenomenon will remain unchanged. This is the celebrated ceteris paribus or 'other factors remaining unchanged' clause economics uses to explain models. In reality other factors seldom remain unchanged. The benefits that seem almost apparent with CSR may not be so in the practical world.
Let there be an education institute that has 1,000 students in 20 classes where each class-size is 50. The institute seeks to reduce class-size by 20 percent to improve students' performance. Each class will loose 10 students. This reduction results in releasing 200 students from 20 classes who will fill up 5 new classes with 40 students per class. The education institute will now need 25 classes- a 25 percent increase from the original 20 classes in this simple example. This is where the problem becomes complicated. How will the education institute respond to the changing environment?
Small class-size at all levels of education is desired in all countries including Bangladesh, Photo: Star
If the education institute hires new teachers- these new teachers would be drawn from a pool of inferior teachers who would not have been employed had the number of classes remained at 20. A second option would be to let the existing teachers fill in the extra classes with additional pay benefits.
The first option can lead to deterioration in teaching quality if less qualified teachers are hired to maintain a certain student-teacher ratio. A variant of this argument has been placed from a different angle. If labour is free to move from one sector to another- and if it is further assumed that efficient teachers are available then it could well be that efficient teachers from less privileged sectors or poorer education institutes will migrate to the more privileged sectors of the economy (Dhaka in the context of Bangladesh). This will result in education institutes in less privileged areas or education institutes with few resources losing good teachers.
The second option of utilising existing teachers can be viewed as a short-term solution. If this option persists, then existing teachers may find it difficult to give attention to all the students. Some teachers will now be required to give the same lectures in multiple classes. This will have the potential to contribute towards burning of teachers and indirectly contribute to falling teaching quality.
Finally, if small class-size is required by legislation or demanded by the market then the education institute will construct physical infrastructure with small classrooms. If policy changes demand large class-size in the future, the education institute will find it difficult to adjust.
What does empirical evidence suggest? - Eric Hanushek surveyed 277 econometric studies published in books and academic journals. Only 15 percent of the studies found reducing class-size had positive impact on students' performance. Surprisingly, 13 percent of the studies found a negative impact on reduction of students' performance due to CSR. Christopher Jepsen and Steven Rivkin in their study of California found the State's $1.6 Billion a year programme for CSR did not appear to be the silver bullet many thought it would be.
Silver Linings Behind Clouds - Although empirical evidence from the US and the UK on CSR does not have much to show in the aggregate there are instances when CSR is desirable even though it may be expensive on societies. These experiences are relevant for Bangladesh too. In her study, Valerie Wilson found the benefits of CSR in two cases. First, the benefits of CSR are seen the most at school and high school when students are developing cognitive and intellectual skills. Second, CSR is also effective among deprived strata of society who would otherwise not have received proper attention from teachers in large classes.
Conclusion - Small class-size at all levels of education is desired in all countries including Bangladesh. Any CSR policy whether implemented by legislation or driven by market demand needs to be reviewed and pursued very carefully. Smaller class-size has the potential to contribute towards raising students' performance, but its success depends on many factors economic theory and policy makers sometimes fail to remember do not always remain unchanged in the real world.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)
The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction by Matthew M. Chingos, Center for American Progress, April 2011.
Does Small Really Make a Difference? By Valerie Wilson, University of Glasgow, June 2002.