Rich Parents Love Small Class Sizes

In the Sunday Times, Sara Mosle suggests that the way to square the circle on the class size debate–while working within current budget limitations–is to guarantee smaller classes for poor children only, while setting up pilot projects to test the thesis of Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomberg, and Mitt Romney: That excellent teachers might be willing to take on 3-5 more students per class for a moderate pay raise, say $5,000 or $10,000. The reformers argue that improved student achievement would be the result.

The political problem with Mosle's idea is that many of the loudest advocates for small classes are middle-class and affluent parents. This is backed by polling; by a growing national advocacy movement, driven by middle-class parents and educators, that considers small classes a sacred right for all kids; and by evidence that when American parents choose private schools, one of the main perks they are purchasing is lower teacher-to-student ratios. In fact, the United States has one of the largest private school-public school class size gaps in the developed world — 19.4 vs. 23.6 children – compared to an average of just one additional student in the public school classrooms of other developed nations.

Screen Shot 2013-05-05 at 10.14.27 AM
via the OECD

In other words, denying middle-class kids smaller classes turns out to be a great way to alienate middle-class parents from education reform, and might even drive rich families out of the public school system entirely. This is problematic for the political sustainability of education reform.

There's a policy problem, too: Pursuing smaller class sizes only for disadvantaged children assumes that poor and middle-class kids are sitting in different classrooms or attending different schools. This is true most of the time, yet because of demographic shifts in both urban and suburban areas, we are seeing more and more diverse classrooms — a good thing. Giving districts extra money for class size reductions targeted at poor kids could induce schools to track disadvantaged children into separate classes, something that actually happened during the Great Society era when federal funds were first tied to efforts to provide poor children with extra services. 

Click here to read about research on the relationship between class sizes and student achievement. 

5 thoughts on “Rich Parents Love Small Class Sizes

  1. Dani

    “In other words, denying middle-class kids smaller classes turns out to be a great way to alienate middle-class parents from education reform, and might even drive rich families out of the public school system entirely.”

    alienating them from education reform? Can you explain what you mean by education reform? Education reform as defined by the current trend of privatization of the schools and charter schools?

  2. Matthew


    You make a good point about heterogeneous classes, although you know well that here in NYC we’re still pretty well segregated along income lines. You could do a lot of what Sara suggests before running into too many diverse schools. (I trend I hope to reverse)

    Doug Harris, a middle class parent of school aged kids, has done a fair amount of research into various ed reforms. You should check his work,

    He suggested CSR is popular with parents because it is so quickly observed. Far easier for the busy mom or dad to glance at the class with 18 kids and think ‘better’ than to assess the curriculum, or pedagogy, or skill of the teacher and say, ‘Oh, my child will do well here even if there are 25 other kids.’

    It gets more complicated when you get to middle school and teachers (presumably) are grading many more longer essays and there’s a limit to what the techer can do in one night.

    In k-5, however, I’d say from direct experience I’d favor quality of instructor over CSR any day. But I’m empathetic to the psychological attractiveness of CSR to most parents who can’t dig in on the issue as deeply.

  3. Sara Mosle

    Hi, Dana,

    I appreciate your engaging my ideas on class size and wanted to offer a few thoughts in return. I agree with you that middle-class and affluent parents are largely driving the current movement for smaller classes. There’s a case to be made that this advocacy can lift all boats–or rather, to adjust the metaphor, reduce the number of students in each boat. But the problem with this approach, I fear, is that it tends to help the children of more affluent families who, as you say, enjoy political clout (and the fundraising capability to supplement meager school resources) without necessarily aiding students in high-poverty districts, which are often the first to see their class sizes balloon the second budgets are sliced.

    These are the students I teach in Newark and am most concerned about in my column. My piece was driven by a desire to create stronger advocacy for economically disadvantaged children, whom the best available research shows would also benefit most from an investment in small-group instruction.

    Using a single correlation in the OECD survey, you suggest that if class sizes rise, rich parents will abandon the public school system in droves, thereby weakening the system as a whole. But there’s a lot of evidence to counter this hypothesis. The greatest is that despite class sizes rising in recent years, the percentage of Americans enrolling their children in private schools has actually declined over the last decade. (This trend began in 2002, predating the current recession, and has accelerated more recently.) In addition, the vast majority of rich Americans–85 percent of those wealthiest families whose annual income exceed $75,000 (the top bracket delineated by the census)–rely solely on public schools to educate their children. There is no evidence that affluent Americans, on average, prefer private schools.

    In addition, the vast majority of private schools are not elite, non-sectarian independent schools like Dalton or Avenues, which tend to dominate media coverage, but are small religious-affiliated institutions, which suggests that the main reason parents choose these schools is so their children can receive some kind of religious instruction. (For example, the only subset of private schools to see a statistically significant increase in enrollments over the last decade has been conservative Christian and Jewish schools.) Private schools with the highest percentage of graduates attending 4-year colleges are Catholic, which also tend to have among the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the private school world; these ratios are still smaller than public schools on average, but not substantially so.

    I think your concerns about tracking are justified–but I’m not sure these hypothetical concerns outweigh the damage being done by the current increase in class size already occurring in many high-poverty schools.

    In sum, I’m not arguing that class size doesn’t matter. I believe it does–both as a teacher and parent. But I do believe it matters more for my disadvantaged students in Newark than it does for my own, relatively privileged daughter (who attends a regular public school)–and would like to see an approach to reform that assures at-risk students are the first to retain smaller classes in a period of savage budget cuts. I worry that groups like PAA, for all its admirable work, are not necessarily assuring this happens but are having the greatest impact in relatively wealthy districts.

    At the same time, one of the biggest–and legitimate–complaints made by Diane Ravitch against some of the reforms proposed by Bill Gates and others is that their ideas are entirely theoretical and have never been successfully implemented in the real world. But to make this complaint, I think, one has to be willing to allow such experiments to occur. I think the jury is out on whether paying teachers more to accept larger classes is practical–for the reasons I note in my column. But I nevertheless believe we should be open to such experimentation, even when it may run counter to our own biases–especially if it would help retain small classes in the meantime for children who most need them.

    For example, schools might be given more flexibility to allow a history class to have a lecture format in some cases, precisely so science labs and writing courses could remain small–but this isn’t possible if all classes are capped at the same legal limit. Maybe some teachers would prefer to have a few more students for more pay–and can make this work for their students. Even if this wouldn’t necessarily be my choice, why should we declare this option off the table in all contexts? Certainly such experimentation is better than rushing to implement costly reforms across the board without clear evidence they work–which is what Gates, Arne Duncan and Michael Bloomberg are currently proposing.

    Hence my proposal: let’s get the powers that be (on both sides of this debate) to work together to keep class sizes small for the poorest children, while at the same time allowing some experimentation around class size to see if other approaches might work. This still strikes me as a reasonable compromise.

    All best,
    Sara Mosle

    Sources for figures above:

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  4. Dana

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Sara and Matthew, and for some new information and data to chew over. Sara, I agree completely that small class sizes are crucial for disadvantaged children most of all — that’s what the research shows. I just want to note that Gates/Duncan/Bloomberg envision their experiment in larger class sizes for “effective” teachers playing out in schools that *do* serve high-poverty kids — they have explicitly framed this idea as one that could close achievement gaps, by putting additional poor kids in front of good teachers who will be paid more. So you’re really proposing a 180 from the reformers’ plan: experiment on middle-class kids, not poor kids.

  5. Fred Ende

    To add more to “chew on” to the mix, take a quick read of Sean Reardon’s piece in the Times Review from 4/27/13 and his extension to that (or likely precursor) in this month’s Educational Leadership. One of his main points is that for all the talk about ways to strengthen education: access to resources, CSR, etc. one piece to not overlook is that the income gap between the rich and poor (much research shows that the middle-class is receding into non-existence)is growing, over some decades at a staggering rate. My point in bringing his work up is that we can (and should) talk fixes to education, but we always have to keep one eye on the underlying problem(s) as sometimes (many times) those problems require much more than just an educational “fix.” Just a short “for what it is worth.”

    Reardon’s pieces:
    link to

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