Back in the Day
When a friend of mine taught in the Catholic schools 35 years ago, she had 45 students in her class. They were packed in so tightly, she says, they had to move the desks to close the door. Yet students learned, behaved, and didn’t feel deprived because their class was so large.
Of course, that would never happen today – 45 kids in a class in which they not only learned, but behaved. But the cultural expectations were different then, and so were the financial options.
Today, with a national student to teacher ratio of 15:1, some are nostalgically harkening back to those days. Maybe a good way to save money would be to increase class sizes, they suggest, citing a dearth of evidence showing a positive relationship between learning and class size. Rick Hess suggests an unfortunately named “Gold Star” program that would pay teachers to carry a greater workload. In order to be considered for the program, a teacher has to have demonstrated two years of better-than-average achievement among his or her students in smaller classes.
Hess admits that this idea would be a heavy lift with parents, who want the individual attention that should come with small class sizes. It may be a heavy lift for teachers too. The classroom strategies that good teachers use in a small class may need to be modified with twice as many students.
The often overlooked reason that smaller class size doesn’t seem to impact learning is, of course, that many teachers use the same strategies whether they have 15, 30, or even 45 students. Smaller classes should not mean less work, although they are often interpreted that way. Instead, students should get more 1:1 instruction as needed. Students who need remediation should be able to get in within the classroom; students who need enrichment should be able to be challenged within the classroom too.
But if there is little evidence that smaller classes improve achievement, there is even less evidence that larger classes will work better. Kids who flourish in larger classes are often kids who have a strong work ethic, personal discipline, and adults in their lives outside of school who make their expectations clear. Interestingly, these are the same kids who do well with online courses that require a similar work ethic and discipline.
Increasing class size to save money seems like a great idea for someone else’s kid. The focus should be on improving instruction, not enlarging class size. Improving instruction, by the way, saves money by not having kids repeat grades or qualify for remedial reading and math.