David Leonhardt and the Consensus on Class Size

While perusing David Leonhardt’s article on Chinese consumption, I noticed the following:

In some ways, Wuqi’s schools are impressive. Feng made sure a new preschool was built in advance of a neighboring low-income apartment complex, so that children who moved in would immediately be able to enroll. The steps of an elementary school I visited were painted with American sayings to help students learn (like “That’s all!” and, oddly, “I’m on a diet”). A middle school had a 2,500-seat sports stadium. At one Wuqi high school, uniformed students walked down a hallway beneath photographs of Amherst College and N.Y.U. In other ways, though, the schools have a long way to go. Every high-school class I saw, for instance, had more than 50 students. The fairest conclusion seemed to be that Wuqi’s schools were improving and that local party leaders were serious about continuing to improve them.

Is there something intrinsically wrong with a class of more than 50 students? We’ve discussed how disruptive students can impact the effectiveness of teachers. Basically, we can think of a classroom as a congested or limited capacity public good. Disruptive students — students who create disciplinary students, students who are either far ahead or far behind their classmates in mastering the relevant material — demand more attention from teachers than the typical student. A small handful of disruptive students can make it very difficult for even the most talented teachers to teach effectively. We use a number of methods to tackle this problem, all of them imperfect: tracking by ability, isolating students who misbehave, etc. We can certainly improve on these methods. But there is no reason a class of 50 disciplined, attentive students can’t be taught effectively in many subjects, particularly if the class is supplemented by personalized instruction delivered online or otherwise.

With this in mind, Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks have offered a brilliant proposal to give the most effective teachers more impact, and also more compensation:


The classic method for improving education has been reduction in class size. Smaller classes are always better for kids, the thinking goes, and any challenge to this status quo immediately encounters a buzz saw of opposition from parents and teachers, who are drawn to the obvious appeal of smaller classes. The costs of small classes, however, are high and not just monetary—they dilute the quality in the teacher workforce, reduce training for individual teachers, and use funds to hire more bodies rather than for higher salaries. Yet surprisingly, the research supporting across-the-board class reduction is thin, at best.

The evidence that proponents most frequently cite—based on the Tennessee STAR experiment—is shockingly narrow to base an entire theory on. This research suggests that smaller classes are not a uniformly good idea and that while dramatic reductions in class size at first grade and kindergarten could yield some benefits, these results were contingent on there being no accompanying dilution of teacher quality. Of course, in the real world, these conditions rarely hold. Meanwhile, international evidence suggests there is no simple relationship between class size and student achievement. Some nations that excel in middle school mathematics, for example, have class sizes in that subject ranging from 40 to 50 students per class. [Emphasis added.]

Hess and Meeks thus propose the creation of a Gold Star Teachers program, in which effective teachers are allowed to take on more students in exchange for more compensation. The resulting savings would effectively be shared by the teachers, the school districts, and taxpayers. I intend to promote this idea until I’m blue in the face. 

P.S. One more thought: we could think of small class sizes as a “luxury good” that a more affluent society can afford. That view is implicit in the notion that smaller class sizes would represent “progress” for China. Yet the dilution of the teacher talent pool presumably become a more pressing issue in an affluent society, particularly one that is more egalitarian with regard to gender than contemporary China. And so smaller class sizes might actually be less appropriate in a country like ours, if we really believe that teacher quality is vitally important. Rather, personalized online instruction and more sophisticated sorting mechanisms can help substitute for relatively expensive labor. 

P.P.S. Just one more thing! Leonhardt writes:

The centerpiece of the government’s recent efforts to transform China’s economy was the stimulus program announced in 2008. Relative to the size of the economy, the stimulus was more than twice as large as America’s. It focused on infrastructure, mostly highways, trains and housing. Infrastructure spending is heavy-duty investment that plays off China’s existing strengths. When tens of millions of workers were losing their factory jobs at the depths of the global recession, the government was able to put many of them back to work quickly on construction projects. (In an authoritarian state that does not have to worry much about property rights or environmental laws, shovel-ready projects are easy enough to find.) “The government does not have as strong instruments to influence consumption,” as Yu says. “Investment is easier.” That is especially true in a consumer economy as immature as China’s.

Is it worth factoring in “automatic stabilizers”? Many in Europe claimed that comparing fiscal stimulus in the U.S. and Europe wasn’t apples-to-apples because “automatic stabilizers” in Europe were more comprehensive and more generous. In a similar vein, one of the central challenges to China as it seeks to raise consumption is the relative weakness of its social safety net. Once we factor in unemployment compensation and other transfers, I assume the gap narrows somewhat. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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