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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 03/29/2011

The misleading data and debate on class size

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This post was written by Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

By Joanne Yatvin

At a time when tight state budgets are pushing schools to increase class sizes at all levels, some of the most powerful voices in educational policymaking are telling us that size doesn’t matter. Unless, maybe, large classes improve student learning. According to recent statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, for example, great teachers do just fine with oversize classes. So why not give as many students as possible a seat in their classrooms?

Most of the research done in the last 30 years argues against this notion, showing that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades when students are in ordinary size classrooms.

It’s clear, however, that large class advocates don’t care much for research. Their opinions are based on false analogies to their experience in fields other than education, unreliable data, and personal anecdotes.

In this case, school districts themselves are putting out misleading data. In their reports, often widely publicized, it looks like ordinary classrooms have only 19, or even 15 students, when in fact there are 25 to 30 live kids in most of them. The disparity arises from using averages that include special education teachers, counselors, and literacy coaches who work with small numbers of students or even one student at a time, but that is rarely made clear to the public.

Personal anecdotes come from many of us who judge today’s education through comparisons to our own memories. It’s not unusual for a successful middle-ager to say, “There were 40 kids in my 8th grade class, and we all turned out fine.”

But is that true? There were 40 in my class, too, until the middle of the year when two 17 year olds left to join the U.S. Navy. About five more of my classmates lasted till the end of the year, but never went on to high school with the rest of us.

Class size mattered then, and it matters now. For teachers, just managing the physical maneuvers within a large group is challenging. How do you make sure that all kindergarteners’ shoes are tied and their coats buttoned up before they go outside to a wintry playground? How do you apportion the 25 workstations in a high school chemistry lab among 35 students?

Only after the physical problems are taken care of can teachers begin to deal with the challenges of facilitating school learning. In the real world, children and adolescents encounter new information and skills all the time, but they have the freedom to reject, postpone, or learn things at their own pace. School allows no such choices: Here it is; learn it now; prove you know it tomorrow. And it is the teacher’s responsibility to make all that happen.

Good teachers accept their role and carry it out by moving around the room while students work, stopping frequently to check, give help, or just encourage. They also design lessons to accommodate the range of student competence within their classes, hold small group review and re-teaching sessions, meet with individuals who still don’t “get it”, communicate with parents, and reflect on how each day’s lesson went to make things go more smoothly tomorrow.

Doing all these things means multi-tasking during class time and putting in several hours of planning and paperwork outside the school day. With experience and smart thinking, good teachers can manage all their responsibilities with classes up to 25. But past that number things get harder and harder. And there is a breaking point, maybe at 30 or 35, certainly at 40.

If we really want all the excellent teachers policymakers, politicians, and pundits are calling for, we have to be willing to provide the school supports that are necessary. One of those supports is reasonable class sizes that allow teachers to do their job to the best of their ability, keep their sanity, and have a life.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 03/29/2011

 
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