The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Class Size Matters

on April 2, 2016

I wrote today’s post a couple of years ago for Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post. What I did not include in that essay was how we solved the problem of uneven classroom sizes in the schools where I was principal. At all grades we changed our structure from single-grade classrooms to mixed-grade classrooms. Not only did that change work out very well for keeping class sizes reasonable, it also provided other importat benefits for students and teachers. In my next post I will write about what we did and how it worked to improve school life for everyone.

At a time when tight state budgets are pushing schools to increase classroom sizes at all levels, some of the most powerful voices in educational policymaking are telling us that size doesn’t matter. Unless, maybe, large classes improve student learning. According to statements by former 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 that notion, showing that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades.

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.

To make matters worse 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 or more live kids in many of them. The disparity between reports and reality 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 fact is rarely made clear to the public.

Personal anecdotes also add to the misunderstanding of the effects of class size on students.  Many of us judge today’s education through comparisons to our own experience.  It’s not unusual for a successful middle-ager to say,“There were 40 kids in my 8th grade class, and we all turned out fine.”

But is that true? There were also 40 kids in my 8th grade class in the beginning. But in the middle of the year two 17-year-old boys left to join the U.S. Navy. (Both had been held back two or three times during the elementary grades.) About five more of my classmates hung in there till the end of that school year, but never showed up in high school with the rest of us.

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 read and comment on the written work of all students every week?  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 facilitating school learning. 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 for every one of them.

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 them. They also design lessons to accommodate the range of student competence within their classes, hold small group review 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 more smoothly 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. One of those supports is reasonable class sizes that allow teachers to do their job to the best of their ability, keep their sanity, and have a life.






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