Size does matter…Class size that is

Size does matter…Class size that is

How does class size affect the abilities of effective teachers?

My first year of teaching I sat looking out in a sea of 35 third grade faces thinking to myself, “Where in my methods classes did they prepare us for this scenario?” I knew right then and there that my teaching style (which was yet to be determined) was going to, in part be molded by logistics and sheer numbers.

23 years later of teaching first through sixth grades with class sizes ranging from 15-35, inner city, suburban and private school experiences, I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that size does matter, especially at the elementary level.

Teachers are faced with so many variables in the classroom: curriculum, content standards, I.E.P’s, behavioral issues, the physical classroom space, the number of supplies they are allocated, etc. All of these issues add to the c challenges of the teaching profession. When the number of students in a classroom is increased, it can make teaching an even greater challenge. I have spoken with teachers, with large class sizes, who have chosen to reduce the amount of writing they give to students on tests, or in small group work because they lack the time to conference with every child and to grade the work thoughtfully. It is a daunting task to try to have writing workshops with 30+ kids in a classroom.

Working with a class of 20-25 (and I personally think the cap should be 20) is clearly going to better benefit students versus a class of 25-35. Once class size rises above 25, I believe, it becomes increasingly more challenging to reach each child, conference with them on their work, differentiate learning and meet individual needs on a daily basis.

Typically in the class size debate, an often quoted piece of research comes from a New York Times article in 1988. The U.S. Dept. of Education said that reducing class size was a ”very costly ‘reform’ that is unlikely to have tangible benefits for student achievement.”

If you have taught since 1986, as I have, you know that the classrooms look different in 2011. Very different. Andy Rotherham knows it. In a more recent article, Andy Rotherham validates the argument that class size does matter, and that state, districts and even the federal government have been trying for years to use class size reduction as a school improvement strategy.

Experts say experience has shown that smaller classes do make a difference especially with certain groups of students. Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, an educational expert at the Rand Corporation, says smaller classes help pupils in primary grades, low achievers and students from low-income or ethnic backgrounds. For these children, Darling-Hammond said, ”decreases in class size to about 22 and below do consistently result in gains in achievement.” She goes on to say, ”Kids who are older, kids who are ready to deal with material that’s being dished out, can probably learn reasonably well with a standard lecture and seat work approach in a large class,” she said. ”But it is not an effective way to teach young children and children who are having learning difficulties.”

How can policymakers account for class size in these economic times?

I realize that in this climate of educational cutbacks, districts and schools are short on funding. In fact, many districts must lay off teachers in an effort to stay within their budget. As districts lay off more teachers, class sizes inevitably grow. Lowering class size, which is a costly endeavor, hardly seems feasible at this time. Regardless of increased teacher layoffs and growing classroom sizes, policymakers remain focused on other, less costly and equally important education reform issues, like teacher evaluation.

Teacher evaluation systems are undergoing a transformation in many states. I suggest that policymakers see class size as an important variable in this process. Knowing that larger class sizes in younger grades make for a more difficult learning environment, rubrics, classroom observations, and other evaluation tools should seek to measure and account for this increased difficulty.

Teachers, especially those of younger and minority students are striving to be effective. Our country needs to realize that education is not a quick return on our investment. It takes time, money and effective teachers in the classroom. Students in smaller classes have more interest in learning and can lead to increased student attention. Teacher morale also increases in a room where effective teaching can take place. Teachers will better be able to individualize instruction, giving those students a greater opportunity to build the strong foundation necessary to succeed.

If we want teaching to become the iconic profession that we know it can be, don’t our teachers deserve every advantage at the starting gate?


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