The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The More, the Muddier

on September 20, 2015

In the good old days when I was a teacher, I never had a class size that hit thirty. Despite my occasional dumb lessons  and those days when I when I wasn’t feeling up to snuff, I managed to teach and the kids managed to learn. How come the folks who can put their feet up on their desks for a snooze  when they’re tired or chat by the water cooler when they get bored, don’t understand what it’s like to have more than 30 students depending on you every minute  of a classroom period  and  150 or 180 papers to grade whenever you give homework?  If they really want our schools to do a better job of educating students, they’ve got to do a better job of making teachers lives livable.

I post the essay below in honor of my friend, Karen Johnson.

At a time when tight state budgets are pushing schools to increase class sizes at all levels, some of the most powerful voices in educational policymaking are telling us that size doesn’t matter. According to recent statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, for example, great teachers do just fine with oversize classes. So why not give as many students as possible a seat in their classrooms?

Most of the research done in the last 30 years argues against this notion, showing that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades when students are in reasonable size classrooms.

It’s clear, however, that large class advocates don’t care much for research. Their opinions are based on false analogies to their experience in fields other than education, unreliable data, and personal anecdotes.

In this case, school districts themselves are putting out misleading data. In their reports, often widely publicized, it looks like ordinary classrooms have only 19, or even 15 students, when in fact there are 30 to 35 live kids in most of them. This disparity arises from using averages that include special education teachers, counselors, and literacy coaches who work with small numbers of students or even one student at a time. But that is rarely made clear to the public.

Personal anecdotes come from many people who judge today’s education through comparisons to their own dim memories of school. It’s not unusual for a successful middle-aged person to say, “There were 40 kids in my 8th grade class, and we all turned out fine.”

But is that statement true? There were 40 students in my 8th grade class, too, which was the result of several students being held back more than once over the years.  At the winter break, two 17 year old boys left our class to join the U.S. Navy. About five more of our older classmates lasted only till the end of that year.  They didn’t go  on to high school with the rest of us. We never knew what happened to them.

Class size mattered then, and it matters now. For teachers, just managing the physical maneuvers within a large class is challenging. How do you make sure that all kindergarteners’ shoes are tied and their coats buttoned up before they go outside to a wintry playground? How do you apportion the 25 workstations in a high school chemistry lab among 35 students?

Only after the physical problems are taken care of can teachers begin to deal with the challenges of teaching. In the real world, children and adolescents encounter new information and skills all the time, but they have the freedom to reject, postpone, or learn things at their own pace. Schools allow no such choices: Here it is; learn it now; prove you know it tomorrow! And it is the teacher’s responsibility to make all that happen.

Good teachers accept their role and carry it out by moving around the classroom while students work, stopping frequently to check, give help, or just encourage. They also design lessons to accommodate the range of student competence within their classes, hold small group reviews and re-teaching sessions, meet with individuals who still don’t “get it”, communicate with parents, and reflect on how each day’s lesson went in order to make things go better tomorrow.

Doing all these things means multi-tasking during class time and putting in several hours of planning and paperwork outside the school day. With experience and smart thinking, good teachers can manage all their responsibilities with classes up to 25. But past that number things get harder and harder. And there is a breaking point, maybe at 30 or 35, certainly at 40.

If we really want all the excellent teachers that policymakers, politicians, and pundits are calling for, we have to be willing to provide the school supports that are necessary. Number one among those supports are reasonable class sizes that allow  teachers to do their job to the best of their ability, keep their sanity, and have a life.

One response to “The More, the Muddier

  1. Karen Johnson says:

    This is wonderful. Thoughtful and right on.


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