Things I Know 333 of 365: There’s another angle to class-size reduction

I know that class size matters.

– Allen H. Messinger, 32-year teaching verteran

I wonder if we aren’t approaching the idea of class size reduction from the wrong angle or angles.

The most common argument for reducing the size of general education classes is increased student achievement. As evidence much research is available, perhaps most classically cited, and certainly most comprehensive is the work done around the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio project in Tennessee (PDF). While the project showed marked and sustained gains in learning for students in small classes (specifically in historically low-achieving populations), context proved key. Small class sizes work best when teachers teach better. Glad that got cleared up.

In the “Against” column we have cost. Reducing the size of classes costs money. It costs space. If there’s a resource, reducing class size probably costs some of whatever it it.

As is so often the case, implemented as mandate and not as a systemic re-design, the greatest cost can be quality. Without building partnerships between institutions of higher education to better prepare new teachers and more of them, class-size reduction legislation can result in the wrong people leading classrooms.

When I moved to Florida to teach out of my undergrad at Illinois State, it was because the district sent representatives to the University’s education job fair to recruit. I was one of many new hires that year who was recruited from out of state. Such recruitment was necessary for the district to secure the best teachers. And ours was a wealthy district. Schools further inland hadn’t the resources to send folks around the country to recruit teachers to keep up with the demands of shrinking classes.

It isn’t that class-size reduction is bad policy. Again, we’ve the research to show the opposite. When initiatives are entered into haphazardly without consideration of hidden costs or what might be brought to bear by the Law of Unintended Consequences, their failures are not surprising.

And, in most cases, we’re not shrinking classes enough, as the evidence points to 16 or 17 being the optimum number of students in class for achievement to improve.

Class-size reduction costs money. Doing it right – phasing the initiative in over time, building bridges between districts and preparatory programs, teaching teachers to adapt their practice to optimize the new classroom, and building facilities so there are actual classrooms – costs even more money.

While I am a fan of achievement, it’s not the my main concern in advocating smaller class sizes.

Enter the new angle.

Smaller class sizes mean more adult and kid interaction. They mean more students get seen, more students get personal attention, and more students have direct role models.

In Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer wrote, “Eighty years ago, most adolescents had far more sustained contact with both older and younger people than do today’s youth. The separateness and the specialness of adolescence were less attended to.”

The larger classes become, the more reduced the amount and quality of time students have with adults whose soul purpose is to help those students navigate the murky waters of how to find the best versions of themselves.

The Internet, texting, and the like are frequently cited as de-socializing students and tearing at social fabric.

If they are, it’s because they’ve taken their cue from the policies we’ve adopted and the schools we’ve built, which surround students with those as equally inexperienced at life as they are and as few adult mentors as possible. Class sizes should be reduced not because it will help students become better readers, subtractors, or test takers. Class sizes should be reduced because it will help students become better people.

3 thoughts on “Things I Know 333 of 365: There’s another angle to class-size reduction

  1. I have 12 students in my class (yes, private tuition-based school). I've never felt closer to kids in my entire teaching career than I do now, and I'm not sure I could go back to a classroom double that size. ALL kids, in public and private schools, deserve to have quality interaction time with the adults around them. That is not possible in a large classroom.

  2. We love our class size of ONE around here. I've come to understand and appreciate that the “socialization” argument against online schools is completely bogus and, frankly, a red herring. Middle school is a “Lord of the Flies” society and my kid is actually better off being away from THAT sort of “socialization.” She is learning to relate to all sorts of DIFFERENT people, which is much more realistic than traditional brick & mortar school.

  3. If quality feedback is the key component to student learning, smaller classes will allow the teacher to increase the number of quality interactions per student per class. That's logical, and if done with skill and intention, there is potential for a huge positive impact educationally and socially over a year. Still, it comes down to the teacher, doesn't it? If we want more successful learners and better people, which we certainly do, quality instruction and mentoring by quality people will do far more than just adding more adults to the building. Magic can still happen in a class of 28 with someone who truly committed and gifted in the room, and mediocrity or worse can still occur in classes of 20, 17, or even (noting the comments below) 12 or 1. Better people help make better people.

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