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Class Size Matters

April 22, 2010

Petra* was a Straight A student with the highest test scores in school.  When in class, she answered every question correctly, was polite and participatory, and was what can be described as a dream student.  She was only in class, however, about three times a week.  In an overcrowded classroom, this event might go unnoticed, or perhaps even be welcomed,  a relief of moving towards a more manageable load of students.  Still, Petra’s absences were a concern.

Helen* had a propensity to look at the right hand corner of my room for long stretches of time, and every now and then her eyes would bulge.  Since she sat close to the front, this unnerved me, and led me to wonder what she might be thinking about to cause such reactions.

Robert* refused to make eye contact with me, spoke no words, and quickly entered my room and sped directly to his seat every day, all semester long.  He spoke in a flat, monotone voice (when he spoke at all), and his writings seemed to always find a way to be centered around the video game Halo.

In an overcrowded classroom, students like these may not appear on an overburdened, harried educator’s radar.   Yet like all students, they deserve an accomplished teacher to identify, understand, and meet their unique learning needs.  In some cases, the teacher is the final fail safe mechanism that will catch them before they are lost to the nether world of crime, abuse, or mental illness.

I kept Petra in at nutrition one day and asked why she missed so much school.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, “sometimes I feel sick and can’t get up in the morning.”  Perhaps it is the sixth sense most educators have, but I wasn’t buying her story.  Through careful questioning, the child confessed to be spending her time at Universal Studios with a yearlong pass she had received for her birthday.  No one knew; her counselors only saw a straight A student, and her mom was conned by Petra who told her the school had her phone number mixed up with another student with the same name.  Other teachers had bigger concerns and had not seen anything to be alarmed about.  I often wonder what would have happened to the girl if her truancy habit had not been identified at the age of 13.

Helen was eventually diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia.  She confessed to seeing a “bad person” talking to her from the corner of my room; his name was Bob, and he sometimes told her to hurt herself.  A referral to the Psychiatric Social Worker resulted in a diagnosis and treatment plan.  Her behavior improved and she graduated from our middle school on time.

Robert was also referred for a psychiatric evaluation for Asperger’s, a mild form of autism.  His family had always wondered why he would isolate himself, and speak to no one.  His mother was extremely grateful that someone had the awareness to notice that something might be out of place with him.  She was relived that there was an explanation for all the social difficulties he had faced in life.

Class size reduction alone is not a panacea.  If a classroom is not manned by an accomplished educator, the fine nuances in a  student’s learning abilities and personality will continue to not be noticed.  But in an era when many are leaning toward holding the classroom teacher 100% accountable for a child’s educational success, then a fair-playing field might be in order.  Give a teacher a chance to do right by his or her students:  manageable class sizes are a basic factor in the equation for quality education.  You can layer reform after reform on top of the school system, but if basic elements like clean schools, decent class sizes, and textbooks for all children are not being provided,  you are building upon a faulty platform.

Many times, critics are quick to point out that they grew up in the 50’s, and that there were upwards of 50 students in their schoolhouses, and they learned just fine.  Or they point to Asian countries where class sizes are often times double or triple American sizes, and teachers get the job done, and they do it well.   As a teacher in the classroom, I would point out that lots has changed in today’s society, and that children today are noticeably different than students from just 10 years ago.  Societies that value education (think Confucius) raise children who are motivated to learn.  What does our society value today?  Who do we admire?  A quick look through the top trending topics of today shows the top three as:  1.  Sandra Bullock, 2.  Vanessa Hudgens and 3.  the NFL draft.  Until education is valued as much as entertainment and sports, please do not pack my classroom with students.  The Petras, Helens, and Roberts of the world cannot afford this.

*Not students’ real names.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2010 5:34 pm

    I am so in your court. I tire of people saying “look at other countries, their classrooms are packed!” You are exactly right, the difference is our culture. In our culture, education is not viewed as a privilege and those attending our schools don’t automatically feel an obligation to their families because they are one of the few granted an education. In our culture, we are fiercely independent for better or worse–the better being creativity and innovation, the worse being an insurmountable sense of entitlement. In our culture, our castes are not labeled but the boundaries between them are strictly delineated–and actions (not attitudes) toward education mark one key difference.

    It seems like everything in our society is pushing teachers and education to solve too many ills–when the problems that cause many of our problems are in fact societal problems which manifest more vividly because schools are charged with serving all-comers.

    In my dream world, Education Reform would begin in the homes and the communities, not in the schools.

    • April 25, 2010 6:01 pm

      Thanks, Mark, for your insights. Its a tricky line educators walk when we ask for people to take a broader perspective on the realities of public education today. Certainly we don’t believe it is a hopeless cause when we are forced to teach 30, 35, or 40+ students in the classroom. We take a deep breath, we get in game form, and we march ahead, hoping to do the best with the circumstances we’ve been given. But let’s be clear that severe impediments are placed on us when additional students are placed in our class, namely for budget balancing purposes. Stuffing classrooms is the easy way to save money. But we are cutting our nose to spite our face, in my opinion, when we do this. And any good teacher will tell you how frustrating it is to feel like you missed something with a student, like those in the post. But alas, we march on!

  2. April 25, 2011 2:25 pm

    We’ve also learned a lot since the 50’s about the correlation between active student engagement and learning. You won’t see any difference in outcomes if you just lecture, regardless of whether it’s to a room with 100 students or 10 students. On the other hand, creating an environment with active student engagement is much more challenging (not impossible…just more challenging) with 100 students. So reductions in class size must also be paired with reflection/training on how to take advantage of smaller classes.

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