The Problem with Class Size Reductions…

One of my favorite pieces of my own writing was a selection on the problem with class size reductions that I recently wrote for the Teacher Magazine website. I opened with:

If you ever want to start a near brawl in the teacher workroom nearest you, walk in and casually drop the following line: There is no question that single-minded efforts to reduce class sizes are flawed and are limiting how successful schools can be.

And needless to say the piece started a digital brawl! It received over 3,500 page views–ranking as the most viewed piece on the TM site for days–and elicited dozens of comments from educators who seem to think that I’ve completely lost my mind! Consider the following examples:

The teacher/student relationship cannot be of any reasonable nature with more the 20 or so students per class. To say otherwise is just plain foolish.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks that smaller class sizes would not benefit the disadvantaged child has either never taught in a setting like that or has got a screw loose. Take your pick!

To say that class size reduction must be accompanied by other reforms like hiring and retaining qualified teachers, etc. is a fairly obvious and somewhat boneheaded statement. Mr. Ferriter seems to be characterizing the move as a bad decision that will only further worsen educational quality. It sounds like he wrote this article merely to create discussion about himself–and, oh look!–he has.

Why are you trying to make this a black and white issue in this manner? If you want to discuss the money behind this, compare a small class to a large class; if you want to compare the relationship and achievement of students, compare both. But don’t pretend that one side has all the logic. What a poorly presented idea.

And my personal favorite:

What a silly article this is. The tag seems to be about a pedagogical debate, then it quickly devolves into something completely different. It’s like a bait-and -switch advertising scheme, and it made me disappointed that I even read it because I thought I was going to see some thoughtful commentary on class size. Instead, I got politics. Reminds me of the morale-deflating bean-counter discussions that happen at my school. Pedagogy comes in second, as usual. Oh well.

What have I learned after strapping a bulls-eye to my chest and daring to argue that class size reductions may be poorly planned decisions (read: quick and popular) that can harm students and create new challenges for education? 

That many teachers struggle to think beyond their own classrooms. This commitment to our own situations is good for the students in our care, but limits our ability to have influence on education at a broader level. Our belief that "our reality is right" serves as a barrier, limiting our understanding of district, state and national policy decisions.

So what do you think? Does the hard-won, intimate knowledge that teachers possess about their own classrooms easily translate to understandings that can inform and educate policymakers? Or do our experiences prevent us from seeing beyond what it is that we understand as individuals?

How about this provocative thought: Is the perspective possessed by those who are removed from the classroom essential for making effective decisions for systems serving thousands of children?  Does leaving the classroom allow one to finally see—as my least favorite principal of all time used to say—"the bigger picture?" 

If so, how can we gain perspective and stay in the classroom at the same time?

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Class Size Reductions…

  1. Bob Guzeman

    At first blush, smaller class sizes seem like a wonderful thing. As a parent, I like the idea of my kids getting more attention and a better education. But, my research into the class size topic really openned my eyes. The big picture shows that such reforms create a large number of teaching openings across a broad spectrum of schools. This has allowed affluent schools with more attractive employment opportunities to steal away many of the best and brightest teachers from other schools. These schools, oftentimes, are forced to “emergency qualify” teachers who have little teaching experience or training. The replacements may be well meaning and caring individuals, but have little understanding of instruction techniques, classroom management or student motivation. In my work with schools experiencing difficulties with teacher quality, I’ve seen first hand how little students learn from those missing these key qualities. Smaller class sizes can be a net loss for some schools.

  2. bruinchiq

    As a former inner-city teacher (who taught a 7th grade science class with 48 students) and current educational policy advocate, I may be one of the few individuals who can see both sides of your argument. In California, class-size reduction brought in an era of horribly unprepared educators that we are still recovering from today. Sure, teachers got some relief from an overcrowded classroom, but 20 students were now being taught by anyone who wanted to walk through the door (well, anyone that possessed a B.A.). Most teachers are not exposed to the statistical studies that show the non-impact of small class size reduction, and they are not willing to see the extreme trade-offs of the situation due to the high cost associated with smaller classrooms. They’re self-interested in their anecdotal evidence that smaller classrooms enhance learning and do not wish to think on behalf of the greater good. Then again, I had 48 kids in my class because the principal knew I could teach and manage them and they’d learn.

  3. David McElroy

    When I was growing up, I was regularly in classes with 30 or slightly more students. That was the norm for the schools where I went in the late ’60s and ’70s, or so it seemed to us at the time. We never questioned it, because we never had any trouble with it. The teachers we had directly instructed the classes, for the most part — and that seemed to work a lot better than what’s going on today in smaller classes.
    It might be that if all other things are equal, smaller classes MIGHT yield better results. But there are two important distinctions in the real world. First, teaching methods have become more and more politicized, resulting in methods WHICH DO NOT WORK as compared to direct instruction. Second, you can’t double the number of teachers over a fairly short period of time (as you’d have to do to reduce class sizes from 30 to 15, for instance) and assume that average teacher quality is going to be the same. In order to hire the number of teachers needed, standards HAVE to be lowered. Any rational person can see that.
    So it’s clear to me that the original argument from the writer here is that a large class with the right teacher and the right methods can be more effective than a small class with a lousy teacher and the wrong methods. That’s just common sense, which isn’t terribly common anymore in teaching circles, from what I can tell. 😉

  4. Mike

    One teacher, 18 students. One teacher, 36 students. If you really believe that the teacher with 36 students will be able to accomplish nearly as much or devote nearly as much individual attention to their students as the teacher with 18 students, you should expect to have your lucidity questioned, and regularly.
    And the difficulties inherent in having twice as many students do not merely double, they may well increase exponentially. Suggesting that class size does not matter is akin to suggesting that women are inherently inferior to men. Anyone making such an assertion isn’t contributing to any meaningful debate as their premise is utterly faulty.

Comments are closed.