Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Does Class Size Matter?

On Monday, I had the pleasure of observing some excellent reading instruction in 4th grade classes in a small town school district in New Jersey. To give you an idea of size, I was able to observe every fourth grade regular education teacher (6) in the district over the period of one school day. Many things jumped out at me during these observations, but nothing was as startling as the class sizes in these six rooms – 12, 13, 11, 18, 19, 20. 

Now, the reaction you have when you read those numbers will depend on who you are. Likely, if you are a teacher you are awed by all the possibilities that classes this small would afford you as a teacher. If you are a parent of a fourth grader, you probably are pleased that your child would be able to get so much individual attention in the class. However, if you are a taxpayer in the district without children in the school, you may see this as a wasteful expenditure. It looks like the district could save lots of money by reducing the staff in half. Finally, if you are a district leader, you are looking at these numbers and trying to determine how to present a responsible budget in difficult financial times, while balancing staffing needs with other expenditures including building maintenance, educational supplies, technology needs, and so forth.

The district I described above is not a wealthy district. It falls in the middle of the pack in terms of socio-economic status. According to a district administrator I talked to, this small town has always prided itself on neighborhood schools and small class sizes. The town's motto is "Small Town, Big Heart." A school board or school leader looking for greater efficiency in the district by consolidating schools would find stiff public resistance.

In 2008 I was working as the Director of Human Resources for a large suburban school district. As part of my responsibility, I was charged with establishing class size guidelines to present to the Board of Education for approval. Obviously, this was a heady responsibility. I went about the job methodically and, I hoped, thoughtfully. I read the research, including the well-known STAR research out of Tennessee that showed that large reductions in class size (from 22-24 down to 12-17) could have educational benefit, especially for at-risk children. I read other research that seemed to indicate that small class size reductions had small impact. Other considerations played a role as well. As a teacher, I had taught classes as large as 39 and as small as 22. I knew in my heart 22 was better. But was it better just for me or better for the students, too?

Another thing I needed to take into consideration was the community expectations. Many families moved to the district because of the high quality of the public schools. They sacrificed a great deal to buy expensive houses and pay high taxes to send their children to a highly respected district. These concerned and vocal parents were not going to stand for high class sizes. Eventually I recommended the following structure.

Grades K-2:                20-22 students
Grades 3-8.                23-25 students
Grades 9-12.              24-27 students

Special consideration was given to some classes with special requirements. Supplemental Instruction was capped at 10 students and high school science at 24 because there were only 24 lab stations in each room.

No sooner were these guidelines approved by the Board, then the recession hit, the State aid to the District was slashed, and hard personnel decisions had to be made that had a incalculable human impact, but also brought the class size parameters under ever deeper scrutiny. I found myself in daily discussions about how far we could stretch the guidelines and where the stretching might have the least educational impact. In the end the guidelines were maintained, but at the upper ends of the ranges.

So class size does matter. It matters to teachers and parents and boards of education and taxpayers and school leaders. But does it matter for students and how does it matter for them. The corporate education reform movement likes to cite the mixed evidence of actual learning gain of students in marginally smaller classes to argue for rewarding "high performing teachers" by paying them more to accept larger classes of students. The idea is to have more students exposed to these top teachers. Makes sense doesn't it?

Well, I suppose it might make some sense if we all defined education as a score on a  standardized test. It might make sense if we could actually reliably determine who "best teachers" are. Unfortunately, and most fortunately, schooling Is much more than a score on a standardized test and teaching is much too complex to be easily quantified.

What do we want children to learn in school? Of course we want them to be able to read and write and compute. But I believe we want so much more. We want children to learn to be good citizens. We want them to learn to think critically. We want them to learn to be knowledgeable consumers. We want them to develop a social conscience. We want them to learn how to get along with others. We want them to feel safe in school. We want them to be allowed to explore their interests. We want them to be nurtured. We want them to learn how to "do school", so they will be successful at the next level of learning and we want them to learn how to "do life" so that they can live a happy and productive life. Is this asking too much of school? Perhaps, but in my experience this is exactly what good schools do and more.

And what do we want from teachers? Yes, we want highly intelligent people who know their content well. We want teachers who are skilled at planning engaging lessons. We want teachers who are skilled diagnosticians, skilled at meeting diverse students needs, skilled at classroom management, dedicated to their work. And we want teachers who are good nurturers, who really listen to children and value their thinking. Would the impact of a great teacher be increased by loading in more students or would it be diluted by the increased demands?

Back when I was teaching those 39 ninth-graders, it really wouldn't have mattered whether I was teaching fifty students or 20 students in the class. At the time, in my first year, I was a stand and deliver teacher. I stood in front and lectured and students took notes and spit back at me what I said. Over time, I learned to be a facilitator of learning, rather than a "sage on the stage." When I made that shift, I truly began to see the benefits of reasonable class sizes. So, it is not just about controlling for class sizes. Teachers must change the way they teach to take full advantage of the smaller sizes. In the schools I visit, especially the elementary schools, this is clearly happening. It is a huge challenge to meet the needs of all students. When students are at-risk the struggle is even greater.

Good teaching matters. Arriving at school ready to learn matters. Class size matters. Policy makers need to insure that teachers get the training they need to take full advantage of reasonable class sizes. They must also look closely at the needs of their students and set guidelines for class size that are most likely to meet those students needs. Yes, class size does matter, not just for the adults in the room, but for the children, also.