Class Size!

As Yoda might say: Always a lively debate, class size is.  And that’s the topic of this week’s School of Thought Column at TIME.  Listening to the debate about class size is like stepping into a time warp.  The big issues about whether teacher effectiveness maters more, costs and benefits, and which populations really do need smaller classes are pretty settled yet a raging debate goes on thanks to a lot of advocacy. That matters as districts face some hard choices this year:

Budget cuts! Layoffs! Bigger classes! Oh my! Given the mini-Wisconsins erupting around the country, it’s not surprising that parents are worried about their children’s schools. At least 45 states will face some budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins this July, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last week the school board of Providence, Rhode Island gave pink slips to the city’s entire teaching force. Rumors of class sizes as large as 60 students circulated in Detroit.

Reality check: There will be teachers teaching in Providence next year. Similar sky-is-falling scenarios will be averted in Detroit and elsewhere, too. But that doesn’t mean that there will not be fewer teachers—and larger classes—in many places when school opens this fall. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may well be right that scarce resources will be the “new normal” for schools.

Read the entire column here.

22 Replies to “Class Size!”

  1. When I worked as a teacher, I taught classes as small as 5 or 6 students (in special education) or as large as 38 students (honors English). From my experience, it is easier teaching a larger class of well-behaved, motivated students than a small class of very challenging students, who need much more personal assistance.

    That said, very big classes are a pain for a number of reasons: (1) Classrooms are too small for the number of students — kids are crowded and grouchy, plus it’s easier to cheat when everyone is peering over one another’s shoulders; and (2) Grading papers becomes overwhelming. If an English teacher has 5 periods of 35 kids a day (175 kids), there’s no way she can grade that many papers on a regular basis. Teachers of large classes need to reduce grading by having students grade their own work (or use peer grading) or simply reduce the amount of homework assigned and collected. Large classes also make essay/short answer tests more difficult to administer; Teachers are forced to rely more on and multiple choice/Scan Tron tests simply to keep up with the amount of students.

  2. It is even more problematic in science classes which have labs designed for a certain number of students. My labs are designed for a max of 24 students. If my admin packs 32 kids into the lab and some kid gets injured from an acid spill, broken glass, hot liquids, etc. because the kids are elbow to elbow…who is liable ?

    It is one thing to drag more desks into an ordinary classroom. But labs are designed for x-number of students and can’t easily be expanded without major renovations.

  3. Reality check, increasing class size won’t turn mediocre teachers into great ones. And even with great teachers facing the long tail of the Great Recession, not much learning will take place in inner city classes of thirty. Neither will it be possible to create successful turnarounds with those numbers.

  4. In re: “john thompson.”

    First, where does the author or anyone state or suggest that increasing class size will improve a teacher? (Hint: the answer is “no where.”)

    Second, thank you for poignantly summarizing the overwhelming generalization that epitomizes the opposition to these points (“not much learning…”). I am sure the first two posters– who intelligently and specifically cite reasons why class size can be difficult– love your argument.

  5. Kent: Good point about science classes. Having never taught science, I’d forgotten about the problems science labs have when they are overcrowed with too many students. Thanks for bringing a science teacher’s perspective to this discussion.

  6. Sounds like infrastructure and ‘the way things have always been done’ are a hindrance to real educational ‘progress’ or ‘reform’. However, being mindful of too many chefs spoiling a soup, true progress can’t be made until all stakeholders come to ‘the table’ and contribute equally. The system has evolved in such a way that more and more often parents/community/etc. see the schools as a place where they can drop off their ‘blank-slates’ and pick them up expecting that they have all of the tools required to succeed in this world.

    Come hell or high-water, my students will achieve in spite of all that happens off campus to derail my efforts. However, for various reasons, not all teachers have this outlook; and understandably so.

    A proposed solution: we find a way (besides the threat of a falling sky) to encourage ‘the village’ to raise our children. Much like on a school campus; “my classroom, my students”, to the detriment of all of the other students on campus; our society has evolved in such a way that we no longer can view them as ‘our children’, ‘our future’, ‘our shared responsibility’. Oh, and while we are at it, vilifying…really? I’m sure we could all tell horror stories of the parent who comes to school with blood oozing from a fresh ‘track-mark’, confused by the fact that the staff will not allow her pre-schooler to go home with her. And yet, teachers are the bane of society? 🙂

  7. S,

    The article said, “That means that as a parent, you’re better off with 28, 30, or maybe even more kids and a great teacher, than 24 or 22 and a mediocre one.”

    And as soon as I pushed Submit I wished I’d said average class size.

    If you think you could be effective in an inner city school with a class load of 150, when the other teachers also have 150 students, I invite you to try.

  8. john thompson,

    The premise is not that increasing class size will turn “mediocre teachers into great ones” as you say. That is just wrong. The argument is that a great teacher is better and can handle more students than a mediocre teacher with less students. You are inverting this argument.

    Second, oh, yeah, you invite me to try? Ha: I teach high school English in an inner city classroom in the western US. My classes right now are 36, 34, 36, 22 and 38. My total role is 166. That’s standard at my high school of over 3,000 students. I have a friend who is supposed to teach labs in science but cannot because of too many kids, i.e. what is cited above.

    Oh yeah, and a bunch of my kids are graduating and going to college. Do you want to try another personalized attack that is entirely baseless?

  9. The biggest problem with class size increases as I see it is that kids will be left behind. I teach general (i.e non-AP) science classes and have a wide mix of students. Perhaps 10% are very bright and can just sit there and absorb everything without effort and get As without studying (they should be in more advanced classes). A large percentage are compliant students who listen for the most part and do most of their work. They will all be fine for the most part if class sizes increase. It’s the kids on the fringe who have sporadic attendance, all sorts of problems at home, and various other difficulties. I can barely keep track of these kids now with class sizes of 25. Give me another 10 kids per period and I promise a whole lot more kids will fall through the cracks. That is a mathematical certainty especially at the HS level where you get a new batch of kids every 55 minutes.

    But then we all know that NCLB wasn’t really about that anyway.

  10. your repeated response to the statement made by Rotherham indicates youre having a problem with logic 101. If there is no logic behind it (and there isn’t, which is my point) then why do “reformers” keep making it?

    You got any evidence that much learning is going on in a school like that. After all, there’s always a first.

  11. John:

    What are you talking about? S was correct: you seem to be burning a straw man, which is common for you, so I don’t think you’re in any position to try and correct someone else’s logic.

    The reasoning behind the statement in question comes from the research. If the research is telling us something that is contrary to your common sense, the sensible thing to do would be to question your own assumptions, first.

  12. john thompson,

    That doesn’t even make sense. I am new to this board (having been directed here by a colleague because of the class size article, which is an enormous issue in certain districts), but where in the world are you getting your thoughts? Rotherham says that, based on the research, an excellent teacher can achieve more with more students than a mediocre one can with fewer students. It is a slight increase. That is all.

    Secondly, I “got” evidence. It would be that my students would never write like you do.

    In terms of my school, does it “got” evidence? Well, we are improving, albeit slowly. A lot of transiency doesn’t help. No, I am not telling you where I teach or anything like that. We made AYP– as silly as it is– in almost all sections (sped subgroup is causing some problems, which I am sure some of you who work in schools understand).

    Next, I have never claimed nor will I ever claim that this situation (a lot of kids) is good. I would love to have 20 in each class; I cannot do as good a job as I would like to with my roster. Unfortunately, because of how we set things up here, some teachers get more students because we can “handle it” in order to drive down size in some other rooms.

    But what is your solution? I am going to do what you didn’t do, which is provide a disclaimer– I am going to speculate here, so I could be completely wrong. So anyway, what should we do in order to address class size, john? Break up schools? Hire more teachers? If you want to fund that, please do. Or, based on your “turnarounds” comment, is it because we are a traditional public school that doesn’t have to “compete” and because our teachers are (mostly) in the –wait for it– union? Yes, I bet that is it– our benefit and pension agreements have caused our school, built to hold around 2,000, to balloon to 3,000 (the beauty of trailers), and if we didn’t get health benefits, we would be able to hire the additional 7-10 teachers. Because everyone would want to teach a class roster of 150 with no benefits and a low $30 salary.

    Do you teach, john?

  13. I dont think class size is different for the various populations .. Its really more on the smaller the class the better attention each student receives. The quality of that attention is only as good as the teacher as well as the students willingness to learn

  14. Hey Kent, I teach HS science and I do have 35-38 in a combined lab/lecture room designed for 24 (I have talked to the original architect). And I have 187 kids altogether. In some states, there are statutes about liability issues in over-crowded classrooms. My state of Colorado has no such law. Here’s how you get around the over-crowded, potentially unsafe science room: you don’t do the labs.

    Seriously. I do however try to group kids around my 10 aging computers and do online simulations instead (biology and physics), my AP class is still small enough to be safe.

  15. Since its a long debate whether over-crowded classrooms lower the productivity of students capabilities or not. Its an on going discussion but i personally think that classes with less students are more appropriate for learning environment, as have an over-crowded with students. Because teachers can focus on those students as well who are week in studies.

  16. I am a seventh grade industrial technology teacher and I have an average of 24 students in my classes. I teach students how to use 3D computer aided drafting programs and wood shop technology. I have found having 24 seventh grade students on dangers power tools is a very demanding and stressful position whether you are a rookie or a veteran teacher. It is very difficult to ensure that many students are following safety protocols, and in my opinion would be next to impossible if that number were in the 30s or 40s. I agree with Kent that safety can be a serious issue when restructuring class room sizes. Change needs to occur but I don’t think cutting teaching positions is the answer.

  17. I agree with Michael here. Larger class sizes are definitely a challenge because of the individualized instruction that each child requires. Most teachers implement small group instruction and with a class size of 30+, your small group could end up becoming 50% of your class.
    Also, instructing reading to a class of 30+ first graders seems ridiculous. Students at this age NEED individualized instruction when learning to read.
    At this point, I wouldn’t care so much about losing my teaching job. I feel bad for the children. They deserve a quality education.

  18. Reading all of these comments has me wondering- what now? There is little to do about the size of our classes. So… instead of beating our heads against the wall and screaming, what can we do to ensure that our students get what they still need?I agree with what ‘doc’ said about grading. Larger class sizes effect me the most because I am less inclined to give a meaningful (but difficult to grade)assignment because I do not have the time to grade it. Lowever level thinking is assessed, and I move on. I hate this. So, what do we do? any solutions out there?

  19. Dan, I agree with you – “What now?” We lost another unit in my department. We’ve gone from EIGHT teachers to FOUR teachers in the last 5 years! Group work went well for about 3 mos. After that, constant worksheets burned out my students and me. I am looking for solutions also!

  20. I agree that smaller class sizes generally means more money for the school district, as you need more classes and more teachers. However, smaller class sizes are more beneficial for the students and teachers. Teachers are able to implement more small group instruction and intervention groups with smaller classes. I also feel that teacher-student rapport is better with smaller classes because you are really able to get to know the students and their needs. Especially in the primary grades where students are beginning to learn how to read, it becomes very hard to conduct one-on-one instruction with big class sizes.

  21. For me with the diversity of instruction required for todays population, smaller class sizes are essenstial to accademic success. Megan you have a clear understanding of the positive effects of having a smaller class and I could not agree with you more. Cut backs are a reality that we all are being faced with and how we deal with them in the classroom is the challenge. I too feel that short cuts on the quality of education may be inevidable and more students will fall through the cracks, we are only human and can only do the the best we can within the constraints we are given.

  22. I believe smaller class sizes are necessary in elementary schools. As an elementary school teacher, I have had class sizes that ranged from 14-21 students. I saw more students achieve in the smaller classes. I believe part of this was due to my being able to work with them more one-on-one. As the numbers rise in my class, the less time I am able to work individually with students. Next year I will have 25 second graders. Aside from being concerned about meeting the individual needs of these 25 students, I am also concerned about how to arrange groups for 25 children given the limited space in my classroom. While I agree that an effective teacher can teach a class of any size, we must also focus on what is best for our children in the classroom and how we can best serve their needs.

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