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Mark Gardner | Current Affairs, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Social Issues, Teacher Leadership | February 9, 2013

Matters of Education...and Class Size

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Class sizeLast year was my first foray into tromping the halls of Olympia as a novice education advocate. I'm still far from an expert--which was one of my reasons for being so reticent to have a political voice.

I think many of us feel that way. The first step, as always, is just to pay attention...read, watch, listen, make up your mind (and remember, it's okay to disagree with your colleagues, your school, and your union, as long as your disagreement is informed).

WEA keeps an active site that is a good place for your radar to first ping: OurVoice. A few bills of note (and I think they're all still live as I type this...but things can change quickly!)

  • S5588: Restricts use of half-days for professional development, marketed as "changing the definition of 'school day.'" (WEA's take, here.)
  • HB1293: Requires districts to disclose the real costs of testing, which has led parents to ask legislators a question they cannot seem to answer.
  • HB1673: Gradually reduces student-to-teacher class size ratios for calculating state allocations, including provisions for even smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools. According to this document, Washington would need to hire over 12,000 teachers to bring our class size to the national average (we're presently the 4th most crowded). 

While there are other bills (and troubling ideas) out there and various stages of their life cycles, ranging from misguided attempts to businessify the teacher evaluation model that hasn't even been given the chance to get off the ground to others that affect collective bargaining, the class size bill, HB1673, is the one I'm thinking about at the moment. 

The class size debate is not new, of course, and as such it is far too easy for our voices to become like those of Charlie Brown's teachers.

If we are to properly serve each individual student as they deserve--and as we are charged--the proportion of my time I can devote to does matters, but in reality, here's how I can tell if my class size is right:

  • By Wednesday of the second full week of school in September, I know every kid in each of my classes by name and by handwriting (since freshmen so often forget their names).
  • There are not so many people in the room that mere collaborative conversation is so loud as to preclude allowing kids work in teams on a project or learning activity.
  • If I want my students to sit in a large circle so we can face each other for a college-prep Socratic discussion about a work of literature, I do not have to reserve the cafeteria to do so.
  • If each kid spends 15 minutes and submits one full paragraph of writing (about 2/3 an MLA page if typed to my standards) then I can get it back to them with meaningful, individualized formative feedback within two school days or sooner so that they can immediately apply my feedback to the development of their skills.

When I think about the kinds of stories I can tell policymakers about pending bills, I know data and numbers are short, sweet, and digestible (though inherently manipulable). If we want legislators to recognize the complexity of our work in any of the bills they consider, we need to keep painting a human face on those numbers (in particular at 33:50 of this video). We could take each period (55 minutes) and divide it by the number of students (31) and point out that this means a maximum of one minute and forty-six seconds of individualized attention for each student--assuming I do no whole-class instruction and no one has a complicated question that I cannot answer with a rubber stamp. I could complain about how large classes means more unpaid assessment of student work on my weekends and evenings--but those are not the real reason why I support smaller class size.

I support smaller class sizes because I see how much more quality teaching and meaningful learning takes place in a class of 24 versus a class of 31. The relationship is exponential, not linear. That very complex picture is the one we need to paint. 

Comments

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I think it makes sense to have smaller classes for intervention classes, and to pay for that with bigger classes as students are more skilled and better at "school behavior."

The grading is an issue, but there are ways to efficiently grade the work of 162 honors level tenth grade history students and still survive. But it's harder than grading the work of 125 of those students, and you can't possibly provide the same quality of feedback.

And class limits are fluid. In my building, there will be 35 students in an 8th grade science class simply because the district won't give us another .1 teacher to cover the extra 28 kids.

The choice between the intangible and the expensive also lets people justify not making any choice at all (the expensive option is written off as impossible to achieve, the intangible option is written off as impossible to assess and cultivate). What I've found interesting in my career is that when I have smaller class sizes I am a higher-quality teacher.

I've been lucky in that half of my assignment every year for the last nine years has been in an intervention program whose class sizes have been capped (most years) at 23-24 students. My classes outside of that program have varied in size from 25 to 32. The larger class size changes the kind of planning I do because of so many reasons--the time necessary for transitions, the unpredictability of small group work, having an extra 8 or 10 assignments to give feedback on per period--these all influence the choices I make about what kinds of lessons I can successfully facilitate. I don't think I become an ineffective teacher when there are more kids in the room, but I do know that I am a more effective teacher when there are fewer.

The class size issue is a tricky one. Everyone wants smaller classes, but they want better teachers even more. So they talk about "teacher quality" instead of class size, because increasing "teacher quality" is intangible and decreasing class size is expensive.

Both qualitative and quantitative data are important. For that reason, I love the idea of using your four bulleted points as a way of looking at class size in addition to just counting heads--your class size criteria are personal, meaningful, and illustrate the point.

Thanks for speaking out on this issue!

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