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Kristin | February 26, 2013

What's Two Kids More?


Article-2059755-0EBF0C3100000578-598_634x381By Kristin

That's a huge wave.  If you've ever carried a gallon of water you might have a better appreciation for what it feels like to have tens of thousands of gallons of water smashing into you.  

I have surfed, badly, and on waves that were maybe two feet high.  I grew up in San Diego and am a strong swimmer so I thought - before I ever tried surfing - that it would be easy.  It's not, and when you bury the nose of that board in a two foot wave and flip foot over head, it hurts.  When you add a child to a classroom, you're adding the whole range of needs that child brings.  It's like adding a foot to a wave - it's not just one foot of water, it's a foot of water that's 300 meters long.  That's a lot of weight added to that wave.

Some people - people who have never taught 32 children - think it's not a big deal to add a child or two to a classroom.  It is a big deal, and I would argue that just like surfing isn't about being a swimmer, teaching more children isn't a matter of being a teacher - it's an entirely different game, and not one that someone who wants what's best for children would support.

Marguerite Roza and Monica Ouijdani researched the issue of class size and published a paper titled "The Opportunity Cost of Smaller Classes: A State-By-State Spending Analysis."  I like their work and agree with a lot that's in this paper.  The popular notion that class size has "ballooned" isn't necessarily true.  But it's also true that class size matters.  Mark recently posted on class size and did a beautiful job outlining the cold numbers that accompany each additional body.  I could run the metrics as well but we've all seen them - each additional student adds so much additional load, and it increases exponentially, not directly.

While Roza and Ouijdani suggest we just "add" two students to the current limits in order to save some money, it doesn't really work that way.  Each building has only so many teachers.  If you get another teacher for every 30 students, and you have 28 extra students, you don't get another teacher.  Those children are "overloaded" into existing classrooms and teachers teach them. They always have.  Suggesting that we add two students more per class I suppose might save some dollars, but we really already have a system that allows that.

The real issue here isn't adding two students, it's about saving money. Washington legislators can't seem to imagine any way to raise the revenue necessary to fully fund education.  I can think of many ways to raise that revenue, but I'm not a legislator.  I'm a teacher.

Because I'm a teacher I can say with some credibility that adding two children a class is a bad idea.  Under our current "limit" of 32, I've had up to 38 children in one class.  Suggesting we increase that by two is offensive to me as an educator who knows the challenges poverty and trauma place on a child's chances in life, but also as a parent who expects that my daughters will get at least a minute or two of attention from their teachers.

While it's true that class sizes haven't inflated to the ratios we hear when teachers or parents complain, it is also true that smaller class sizes are preferable.  That's why private schools offer them, and that's why parents who want the best education for their child seek them.

In the struggle to fund education and to do the most with what we have, it's not wrong to suggest that adding two students to every class is a solution, but it would be terribly wrong to implement that suggestion.  If you disagree grab your board, head out to Hawaii's North Shore, and catch one, my friend.  Or better yet, if you've never tried to teach 34 13-year olds how to write a thesis statement, come to my school and try it.  You might learn a little something about what each added body really means.


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Maren, I too have enjoyed the improved environment a good intern brings. More student support, more personalized instruction, and a more careful tracking of data is what you get with a healthier ratio.
Chris, I know it's a sought after solution, but it wouldn't work.
The best teachers are exactly those educators who wouldn't sacrifice their students' learning for their own personal gain. If those teachers would, they'd have left the classroom for easier and more lucrative positions. The whole idea of a career ladder or this kind of merit benefit is like waiting for The Great Pumpkin: it's held out there as a justification for unstable policy. It is not real, equitable for all teachers or, ultimately, something that puts kids first.

Thanks for writing this Kristin, I love your posts. What do you think about the option for 'innovative' or 'proficient' teachers to take more students (above the limit) for more pay per student? It would have the benefit of students being with better teachers (although the class size issues can't be ignored), and teachers being able to earn more? It could be capped at a certain number per class....

I had a somewhat new perspective (for me) on teacher-to-student ratio recently: I have a student teacher, so there are often two adults in the classroom. It is amazing what a difference having two adults present can make! It really made me think about the optimal number of students per teacher.

Peter, your last paragraph is so perfect. Would policymakers tolerate for their own children the same realities that their policies create for the children of others? Probably not.

There is a reason that the saying is about a straw, not a boulder, that breaks a camel's back.

Thank you. I received a link to this paper in my inbox and when I read it I was a little upset.

Who would suggest that adding two kids to a teacher's load was a good solution to Washington's funding crisis? Only someone who had never tried to accomplishing something with 30 kids.

If we're going to be held accountable for academic results, we cannot simultaneously be given more work for less pay. Because that's what this paper suggests. More work, for less pay. Teach more kids, for the same pay.

I work lunches, weekends, and am on-call via cell phone to my students. I have taken on more work for the same pay.

This "research" boils down to a coward's solution - since we can't tax people, let's put more students in each teacher's class.

Did Bill Gates choose Lakeside because there were 34 kids in a class? I don't think so.

I am so, so tired of those who choose the better alternative suggesting poor kids need to make do with less. I am so, so tired of those who choose the better alternative pretending to act in the interest of the poor kid.

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