- Social Emotional Learning: Can It Help Our Most Vulnerable Students? - August 27, 2017
- Why We Should Teach Meditation in the Classroom - November 8, 2016
- Strike! - October 5, 2016
- Teaching a Superpower - September 22, 2016
- Essentially, I am a Teacher - August 30, 2016
- A Chicago Teacher's Dream - January 22, 2016
- A Career in Crisis - August 27, 2015
- Classroom Community and Rock-Paper-Scisssors - July 22, 2015
- The Art of Teaching - June 22, 2015
- Parent tip: Beyond Sounding It Out - June 4, 2015
When I was in first grade, way back in the early 1960’s, there were 52 students in my class. It was the baby boom. It was a Catholic school. It still was an astonishing number of children. There were three reading groups named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Those poor Joseph’s! How can you learn to read in a reading group of 18 kids? A lot of them never really did learn to read, not even Dick, Jane, and Sally. I learned double-digit addition in third grade. In fourth grade, I wrote my first essay, one paragraph long, on the assigned topic of the American flag.
Occasionally, I hear people reminisce about those good old days of 40-plus kids in a classroom. The classrooms were largely homogeneous. In my small Indiana town, we were almost entirely white. Heck, I was an exception with black hair instead of blond. Only in big cities did the schools have mixed populations.
Our goals were so different and school was thought about differently. Kindergarten was optional. Many of us learned the alphabet and to write our full names in first grade. The expectation for us was to graduate from high school. They knew some of us wouldn’t. The children who had bigger “problems” were sent to the special education classroom in the public school. College was for the chosen few.
Fast forward a million years (at least it feels that way) to 2014. Classrooms are diverse. The expectation is that every child will graduate from college. Children learn to read, and write stories with dictation and creative spelling in Kindergarten. “Rigor” is the norm. Third graders are expected to write and draw to explain how they solved multi-step math problems on standardized tests. We also expect all students to be engaged in learning, all the time.
We’ve set our expectations, Common Core or not, much higher than 50 years ago. What was attainable with large classrooms is simply not possible to meet today’s standards.
There is a mind set in the reform movement that believes a good teacher can handle a large class just as easily as a small group. They say this gives a larger group of children a chance at having a good teacher and saves money at the same time. I’ll come back to this idea later.
In fact, smaller class size is one of the measurable education outcomes shown to have a significant effect on student learning. The Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio Project (STAR) that began in the 1990’s showed that class size of 13 to 17 students improved achievement in all subjects, in every measure, and in all district types. High school graduation rates and national honor society membership were also up for these students. The improvement was most significant in children of color and low-income students. Recently, there was a follow up study that showed college graduation rates also were higher as well as the likelihood of having a 401K.
The normal size class in STAR was 22 to 25 students. In many low-income areas, especially large urban districts, class sizes are closer to 30 students. I taught in one of the largest districts in the country and I rarely had a class below 25. Most often, my class size was 27 or 28 kids. I had peers at other schools in my city who routinely had classes of 35 children. Top performing districts have smaller student to teacher ratio.
As a teacher, I can tell you why smaller is better. It is all about management.
1 Teachers know their children’s learning styles and interests better in smaller classes. You can differentiate instruction to reach individual students. The larger the group, the harder this is to accomplish.
2 Classrooms become intimate communities. Students can manage their own work while teachers are able support individuals and scaffold learning. With larger classes, much more time is spent on what I call crowd control.
3 Small group instruction and conferencing is easier to manage. Trying to conference with each student a week is nearly impossible in larger classes. Small groups are most effective with five or fewer students. I’ve had as many a six reading groups and never felt I met with them as often as I needed.
4 While some things can be streamlined, thirty students means thirty writing journals to review, thirty tests to grade, thirty projects to present, thirty kids to take to the bathroom, thirty kids putting on coats at the end of the day, and thirty forms to collect. If each child takes ten seconds to order their lunch, that is five minutes a day or 15 hours a year. By reducing the class to twenty, you have five extra hours of instruction gained at the end of the year. I am baffled why people using a business model to look at education can’t see this.
A good teacher can handle a larger class. We can. That is exactly what we do, we handle it. We manage. So why do we care about class size? What happens when our classes become smaller? I’ll tell you what we do. Rather than manage, we have more time to do what we know how to do best. Teach!