Why It Makes Sense To Ask (Some) Teachers To Teach (Somewhat) Larger Classes

A blog about business and economics.
May 27 2012 8:44 AM

Why It Makes Sense To Ask (Some) Teachers To Teach (Somewhat) Larger Classes

I think there's a fair amount of confusion in this jeremiad against productivity, but only one slice of it seemed to me to point in the direction of a misguided specific policy conclusion:

In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures.
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I can't speak to the National Health Service, but the class size question is an important one. Consider a parallel issue. Given that small intimidate club shows are better than shows at larger venues, what sense does it make to ask our rock bands to play ever-larger-venues when there are plenty of struggling bands out there eager to play gigs? The answer is that different bands are imperfect substitutes for one another. I bought tickets to see Metric on their upcoming tour even though I'm not thrilled with their choice of venue, because I want to see Metric—not "a band"—play. And with teachers it's similar. Most parents would rather have their kids be in a smaller classroom rather than a bigger one. But most parents would also rather have their kids taught by a great teacher than an average one. The balance we have to strike when we think about class size is that there's a tradeoff between maximizing the in-classroom experience for the students who are lucky enough to have the most skilled teachers and maximizing the number of students who are fortunate to be taught by those teachers.

By the same token, by no means has the availability of recorded music ended people's interest in seeing live music. And yet, over time high-productivity recorded music has become the dominant way that people listen to music with live shows serving as a kind of special treat.Thanks to super-efficient digitial streaming technology everyone can go hear Metric's new single right now. Not just "a song" but that specific song or (if you prefer) any number of other specific songs. That's a boon to people who like to listen to songs, just as over time digital distrbution of lessons should be a boon to people who want to hear teachers explain things.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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