Harvard’s Lesson Re: Class S⁠i⁠ze & School Cho⁠i⁠ce

By: The James Madison Institute / January 28, 2011

The James Madison Institute


January 28, 2011

By Bill Mattox, JMI Resident Fellow
In a recent column, George Will notes that in many Asian countries, K-12 classrooms have far more students, on average, than do most K-12 classrooms in this country.  Given that these Asian students typically score higher than American students on standardized tests, Will wonders if much of the American emphasis on low teacher-student ratios is misplaced.  Will’s column brings to mind an experience my son and I had this past summer.  While in Boston together for a baseball weekend, we decided to take a tour of the Harvard campus.  During the tour, our student guide told us that each semester at Harvard begins with something called “shopping week.” During this week, students go “shopping” for classes – checking out which ones would best promote their learning.  Interestingly, size restrictions very rarely come into play.  If a particular class at a particular time generates greater demand than the space initially allotted for it, Harvard organizers simply find a larger classroom to meet student demand. Now, as you can imagine, this sort of scheduling policy forces students to wrestle with all sorts of real-world market trade-offs:  Would you rather be in a large, impersonal class learning from a much-celebrated professor or in a small class receiving greater individual attention from a less-renowned instructor?   The choices aren’t always easy.  But the students get to make them – rather than having Harvard administrators do so for them. That experience at Harvard was a real eye-opener for me.  Essentially, America’s oldest and most prestigious university was saying through its scheduling policies, “We believe in market forces – we’d rather have our  ‘consumers’ determine how large their classes will be than to have our experts arbitrarily do so.”  While I realize that most K-12 schools in Florida would find it challenging to be as flexible in class scheduling as Harvard is, the underlying principle should not be missed:  education consumers (students and their parents) benefit from having the freedom to make important choices for themselves. As we near the conclusion of National School Choice Week, we need to learn from the example of Harvard.