On Class Size
Some of this fall’s election issues deal with class size. Smaller is better seems obvious, especially when our state ranks 47th in the nation in this regard.
Making classes smaller would cost money, of course. The Seattle Times, as usual, has attempted to muddy the issue by publishing a story about a study that showed no clear results from varying class size. This is not a surprise to anyone who has actually taught children in the public schools, as I did for over thirty years.
In our collective desire to reduce all complex topics to a fifteen word sentence, we leave out details. In this case, what sort of students are in each class?
I agree that too small a class size can possibly have a negative outcome. If you have fewer than fifteen students, and few or none of them choose to be actively involved, then it’s going to be difficult to establish a “feeling tone” that is conducive to learning. Again, it comes down to who is in each class.
At the other extreme, a class size of over 30 will be almost impossible to handle well, in terms of personalized education. Again, results will vary by the students used to create the larger size.
Here’s an example. One year in the early 1980’s the counselors at Kamiakin Junior High had a real problem. The vagaries of budget, available rooms, scheduling big electives like band, available staff, and many other factors make creating any schedule a horror story I never had to deal with. Their problem was a need to add one more 6th period English class. I had such a class time available, but the resulting class size would be huge. The solution required a lot of effort by the counselors, but worked so well I still remember that class.
They chose to offer the class for students to select if they wanted, and if the counselors approved. I ended up with a class of 37 amazing 9th grade junior high students, placed at the last period of the day.
You’d think that the size and time of day would lead to disaster, but the opposite was the case. Because the students had to jump through at least one hoop to get into the class, the only ones who leapt were students who were interested. They were also, almost to a person, students I’d taught in 8th grade who’d had a good experience. I already knew many of the parents, from the previous year, older siblings, or coaching. Also, the counselors did not put any student in the class who had a reputation as a problem child of one sort of another.
The result was a class of 37 students who met each day, for their last class, in a class they wanted to be in. The room held 35 desks, which was about all that would fit. There was no seating chart. The first 35 to get there each day got a desk, and the final two had to hope there was a student or two absent, or they’d be relegated to a chair along the side of the room.
The counselors were effusive in their thanks for my willingness to bail them out of a scheduling crisis, and yet it turned out to be a fantastic class. More of a “writer’s club” than a standard class, I could create assignments that ranged from creative to off the chart wild. Often a student in the class would suggest a better version of an assignment, a version I’d then use in other classes.
I never had to deal with behavior problems, tardiness, or all the other minor snags that can rob a teacher of both time and energy. Snags that are never discussed in the media.
It is true with such a class that grading papers could take a lot more time. And yet not really. For one thing, most of them were turned in on time. Secondly, people who like to write will create papers that are more interesting to read and have fewer errors to correct. At times I’d forget I was “grading” and just get caught up in reading.
I think it was the next year that we created the “Honors English” program I taught, and many of the assignments for that class originated in the humongous class the year before.
Next to my room two friends taught a special education class. Every student in that class faced one sort of challenge or another. Or several. There were about 15 students in the class each semester, one teacher, and usually at least one aide
My friend Colleen needed to attend a conference and needed someone to cover one period. It was my planning period, and I agreed to do it because I owed her a lot. She was the assistant volleyball coach while I was the head coach, and she was terrific. She was a better volleyball coach than I was, to be frank, and inherited the position from me when I chose to leave coaching.
In any case, Colleen prepped her students for a week before the day. She hyped it up quite a bit. Mr. Preston was the Head of the English Department. He was the Head Girls Basketball Coach and the Head Girls Volleyball Coach. He was a rock star!
On the day, Colleen gave me a well-detailed lesson plan. It was math, and I think it involved solving a story problem. Thanks to her hard work ahead of time, the students looked at me as if a movie star had arrived. They were earnest, attentive, polite, and eager to do anything I would deign to present. It was a perfect teaching situation.
And I failed. Utterly and completely. They tried so hard, and I explained the problem several different ways, using every sort of technique I could muster. None of it worked, and at the end of the period several of the students thanked me. For nothing. I was exhausted. One period. Teaching 15 students, not 37.
At Juanita High School I taught a “basic” English course for a few years. This was a class meant as a last gasp effort for students who were about to flunk out of school or drop out. Most of them brought a set of personal issues with them to class each day. Some were hostile, some were bored, and some acted out. Most of my time, especially the first few weeks, was spent on what is termed “classroom management.” I enjoyed the challenge on the days when I was not close to exploding, but the size of the class made no real difference.
How would you measure educational excellence in such a class? I had more than one student thank me for my efforts. After much effort by both of us, the passing student would be the first person in the family to earn a high school diploma. I had a young woman return the year after graduating. The D grade she’d earned had allowed her to enroll in the Marines. Not all educational progress can be reduced to test scores or blanket assessments of class size.
Elementary teachers need smaller class sizes, despite the smaller stature of their students. My wife usually has 24 to 28 students in her 4th grade classroom. The clever architects for her new school planned on about 20. They knew that 15 to 20 is a good class size for elementary kids, but forgot to account for reality. Her classroom in the real world so crowded that the only way it works is for all the students to know by heart a series of procedures she teaches them to allow them to use the space in small groups and by turns. The simple tasks of entering the classroom in the morning, leaving at the end of the day, or even going to recess takes very careful planning. Imagine 27 kids with huge back packs trying to hang up or retrieve their gear.
As we’ve slashed educational budgets in this state in the past 20 years, we’ve also cut programs and aides and other assets all over the place. My brother-in-law works at a school in Olympia. The school has a pottery room with a kiln. Not used. It has a horticultural center with a large greenhouse. Not used.
At most schools, programs like band and orchestra and choir, if still offered, are now “pull-out” programs. The teacher is supposed to somehow create inclusive curricula for all when some students arrive late three or more days a week or are pulled out in small numbers during the day.
All of these are logical outcomes from taking what was at one time the best public school system in the history of the world and trying to retain the results while cutting taxes and reducing budgets, or just maintaining the status quo while inevitable inflation does the job for you. Again and again. We choose to rail at small problems like the occasional teacher who should be in a different profession, because those are “them” problems where we can assign blame.
The real and much larger problem is a lack of funding and a lack of desire to even be involved in the child’s education. Far simpler to reduce everything to standardized tests that create meaningless results. Then we can compare this year’s meaningless results to last year’s as a measure of “progress.” Then we can act surprised when some over-zealous teacher or school administrator falsifies the meaningless results.
The legislature has a handy habit of enacting legislation that requires new programs and lower class sizes. But they leave out one part. They do not provide enough funding, often any funding, to pay for the new programs or to lower class sizes. They’ve done a brilliant job of combining a snow job and a smoke screen and have gotten away with it for years. Now they’re on the brink of a contempt citation from the Supreme Court for their intentional and institutionalized efforts to violate the state constitution, which mandates the maintenance and funding of the public schools as the primary function of the legislature. And then we re-elect them.
Class size is our problem. Funding is our problem. Guns in schools are our problem. We’ve created all of them. They are “us” problems, not “them” problems.
I don’t see any effort to address any of these issues, and doubt there will change until we decide to take the hard step of owning up to the responsibility of all to pay for the education of the young.
Education costs money. A lot of it. Each class is different. Each student is different. Every teacher is different. Making it all work takes the time and effort to look at each teacher, each class and each individual student. It is very hard.
Making excuses, reducing every issue to such a simplistic core that it loses all meaning, and complaining: all of those are easy. And free.
Copyright 2014 David Preston