Can Scientific Studies Measure Classroom Success?

How do we size up success in the classroom?

For most of the history of education there has been no concrete answer to this question.  Do you look at the success of your students? If so, how do you measure that success? Income? Fame? Do you evaluate how happy students are in class? If so, how do we measure happiness? Only recently, has scientific rigor been applied to measuring educational success. 

Robust science relies on methodical collection and analysis of data.  It requires significant sample sizes that have the power to illustrate true trends.  Rigorous science demands controls to benchmark and measure degrees of effectiveness.   All of this can be achieved with relative ease in a lab.   But measurements become complicated when studies are transferred to the classroom. 

The last few years has seen a surge in the number of educational institutions and organizations that are attempting to apply scientific method to the unruliness of the schoolroom.

No-excuse charter schools have amassed databases of statistics to determine comparative success of students on the subjects they teach. Non-profits like MIT’s Poverty Lab conduct scientific studies on social programs worldwide measuring the differentiated success of educational programs. 

There is enormous potential in the power of numbers.

But while embracing numbers and rigor, it remains important not to be too bedazzled by the data and remember that students can’t be folded and formed into histograms and scatterplots 100% of the time.

A few days ago the New York Times ran an opinion piece about the ever-evolving discussion on school class sizes. While acknowledging the desire for small classes, the columnist notes that there has only been one “proper randomized, controlled study” in the U.S., and that data is inconclusive. This has led lawmakers to suggest that perhaps small classes are not all they are dreamed to be.  Perhaps other factors are more important.

As an educator, I know that there are numerous factors at play in determining the success of each individual student.  However I also know that there are enormous advantageous of small class sizes, and I know that not all of those advantages are easy to measure in even the most thoughtful study.

Small classes are the stuff of dreams. In Thailand, I taught non-lecture university courses with forty students, and know first hand the limits of success when working with such a bloated class size. In Boston, I have taught 6th grade classes half that size and still pined for fewer students. Classroom management is a perpetual juggling act: balancing the need to attend to the show-offs, bullies, teacher pets, silent struggling students and all the rest. 

I believe that inherently smaller classes are ideal. I am sure that scientifically rigorous studies can illustrate some reasons: they can possibly show that students from small classes get better grades, or have clearer writing, or more nuanced understandings of history or science.

But studies will have a much harder time measuring the teacher-student connections made in small classes: the feelings of camaraderie and the trust amongst students.  It is harder for studies to measure the gains in confidence and agency that come when students can explore intellectually in a safe environment. It is hard to measure the connection between a teacher and student that continues long after the child leaves that particular classroom.

I fully support applying scientific rigor and disciplined studies to the messy work of school – I think educators and educational systems have much to gain from the applied precision.  However teaching is, at its heart a system of individuals, full of intangible factors. Some of these factors might be hard to plot or even verbalize, but they are no less important in the continued complicated pursuit of educational success.