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A Discussion with Martin Haberman: About Class Size

Apr 27, 2005 by

Mary A. Arth
Cynthia Kleyn Kennedy
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

In this interview, Professor Martin Haberman responds to critical questions about the crucial issue of class size in an Age of No Child Left Behind. Over the next few months, he will examine other important, relevant issues pertaining to education.

Martin Haberman


Martin Haberman is currently Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has written extensively about teachers, teaching and teacher preparation and “ Star “ teachers. He is deeply concerned about preparing
teachers to work in all types of environments, and with all types of students and ultimately with student learning and success.

Question #1. Class size is often discussed as a variable. Yet, some teachers indicate they do quite well when they teach homogenous classes. Are heterogeneous classes the problem? The teachers I have studied perceive class size and the way students are grouped as two separate issues. Most teachers prefer smaller classes because discipline and classroom management is easier.

The sex of the student matters as well. They would prefer larger classes with more girls than smaller classes with mostly boys. We must never forget that for most teachers the hardest part of their job is classroom management. Larger classes and the number of boys is a major concern in this regard. As we move up the scale of teacher competence from Failure/Average/Superior/Star the concern with class size shifts from one of management to one of learning. Effective teachers are concerned about class size because of achievement not because of management issues.

There is no question that most teachers prepare and offer one lesson to the entire class and therefore prefer classes with less variation in achievement. Again, as we move up the scale in terms of teacher competence there is less concern with homogeneous grouping.

Question #2. What would be a realistic solution to reducing class size in the United States?

Mandating class size has not worked well in the several states that have done it.

It causes teacher shortages and raises costs to school districts which then fire teachers of art and music or teachers in the upper grades where there is no mandated class size. It also requires more space, hence all the trailers attached to schools in California and elsewhere.

The best solution is the 65% solution being considered in Colorado. If passed, the state law would mandate that every school district budget would have to allocate at least 65% of its budget directly to the school building for teachers and students. In the larger school districts the amount spent in the classroom reaches as low as 40% with most of the funds spent on “support” and “administrative services” which really means dysfunctional bureaucracies. I would like this requirement to be 75% but this is the direction to go if the goal is to get the funds out of the central offices and into the schools. The schools should be able to decide whether cutting class size or hiring back art and music teachers or hiring aides or whatever, is the best alternative.

Question 3. What are the most effective strategies for engaging all learners in overcrowded classrooms?

The most effective strategy for achieving anything in the classroom is to get better teachers. Unfortunately, most of the teachers in the 200 urban districts with which I am familiar do not regard “engaging learners” as part of their job whether the classroom is overcrowded or not. They “teach” by performing a practice called “There it is get at it!” They make an assignment and then monitor compliance. When you raise the issue of “engaging all learners” in what they are about to learn you are now dealing with superior and star teachers. These are the teachers who don’t complain about class size but about their lack of materials, internet access, having enough supplemental materials, running water if they teach science and enough space to store students’ work. I’m not sure there are any strategies that can be given to teachers who can’t relate to the students or who think teaching is assignment making and monitoring compliance. For those who can relate to their students then modeling their own interests in the subject matter is a powerful form of engagement. Effective teachers also learn about their students’ interests and relate the content to be learned to students’ lives.

Question #4. How might critical thinking skills be developed in a classroom where class size is an issue?

Effective teachers develop critical thinking skills by focusing on the quality of questions students raise. They not only encourage and reward good questions but use the students’ questions to connect ideas and move to more advanced ideas. In one large science classroom I observed in a middle school recently each student wrote their questions, ideas and responses to whatever the teacher said on a large plastic board with a marker, and held it up for the teacher’s perusal. This teacher was getting an active response from every student to every idea in the lesson…and this was in a very crowed classroom.

Question #5. How might class size affect questioning and discourse with students during class and outside of class?

Effective teachers speak with students outside of class at every opportunity including during out of class activities, camping, school trips, and home visits. They do this regardless of class size. Less effective teachers avoid interacting with students outside of the classroom.

In class, effective teachers avoid whole class discussions unless the discussions relate to cooperative planning or building a community in the classroom. If the objective is greater content knowledge the more effective teachers engage in questioning and discourse with small groups, pairs or individuals. They do this by getting the class involved in projects that actively involve them and then circulating around to interact with smaller groups or individuals.

Question #6. In your latest book on Star Teachers what conclusions have you drawn regarding class size?

In the rooms of effective teachers, class size is of critical importance in how much students can learn. The problem with using the findings of class size studies to make policy is that some studies show that students learn more in larger classes than comparable students in smaller classes. This is because the quality of the teachers has not been controlled for. It is important to understand that for poor teachers class control is their primary concern and as their classes become smaller they are better able to manage them but students don’t necessarily learn more. As teachers move up the scale… good, very good, excellent, stars…their primary concern is learning and they are able to teach more in smaller classes. The findings on class size cannot be used to make policy without also taking into account the competency of the teachers.

Question #7. In large classes, should teachers give more independent work to gifted children?

In any size class there are students who finish assignments more quickly than others. Whether these students are “gifted” or simply faster workers, effective teachers have strategies for keeping them gainfully occupied. Some teachers use more advanced assignments for these students, other teachers use enrichment activities that provide more applications and examples of what the student is learning. Some teachers have activities the students regard as rewards so that when they finish assignments ahead of others they can proceed with those activities. Some teachers have students involved in on-going projects so that when they finish assignments they can work on particular projects.

Question #8. How do Star Teachers do differentiated instruction in large classes?

Many teachers who are good, very good, and excellent as well as stars conduct classrooms in which more than one thing is happening. As the teachers become better they are able to multi-task more easily and with greater effectiveness. It requires having more than one assignment for the whole class and preparing things for students to do when they complete their work. There are many elementary teachers who do this as their normal practice but fewer middle and high school teachers.

Question #9. How can computers be used best in large classes?

They should not be used for drill and kill assignments nor for games. There is still a very weak commitment to the uses of technology in schools. Nationwide there are fewer than 30,000 computer technology teachers (4%) and the number is declining
not increasing. Technology should advance and deepen student learning by enabling them to do more extensive research, produce digital work products, communicate with others worldwide, mentor others, and participate in collaborative activities. Before students can learn to do these things teachers need to learn how to do them. The first step for many teachers should be to learn how to go on line and access lessons and activities relevant to their grade level and subject matter. There is a world of ideas out there which is unavailable to the technologically illiterate sitting alone at the kitchen table.

Question #10. How can educational assistants best be used in large classes?

This depends on the competences and attributes of the particular aide. Typically they are used to provide extra help to students having difficulty with assignments or to help with discipline problems by working with them outside of the classroom. As we observe better and better teachers a different pattern emerges. More able teachers learn the particular strengths of their aides and use them for specific functions. The worst uses of aides can be seen in the classroom of teachers having classroom management problems. Here the aides spend all their time trying to “shush” students or get them on task. The net result is that students perceive the aide as in charge of discipline and pay even less attention to the teacher.

Question #11. What can be done to encourage more parental involvement in overcrowded classrooms?

I don’t believe it is a good idea to involve parents without first having a very clear objective regarding why they are being involved. The less effective teachers simply assume that parents are homework helpers, tutors and enforcers of good conduct. In the districts serving diverse students in poverty the parents may be working several jobs. They also may have family lives which, for a variety of reasons, are not conducive to helping with traditional forms of homework. For example, my city has approximately 2,000 children who are homeless. More effective teachers regard parents as a resource. They seek to learn valuable information from them regarding the student’s lives and interests out of school so that they can make the curriculum more relevant.

Effective teachers also seek to involve parents as resource people for the classroom regarding the nature of the jobs they perform, the hobbies they have, the places they have lived, etc.

Question #12. Star teachers do well with small and large classes. How should we be training teachers so that they can deal effectively with small and large classes?

Question# 13 How would teacher education have to change to facilitate larger class sizes in schools?

I have paired these questions because they seem to be essentially the same. The first step in teacher education is selecting the right candidates. Once this is done there is no limit to what they can be taught. If not done, there is little of any value that can be taught to the wrong people. The selection should involve the use of a validated screening interview in which the “correct” answers are those closest to the responses of star teachers. After selection, the primary mode of instruction involves the candidate actually serving in the role of a responsible teacher of record. If the goal is training for large classes this teaching would occur in such a class. The third component is having a mentor who was him/herself an effective teacher. Fourth, is practice in the use of computer resources and networking with other beginning and veteran teachers in the building. The fifth component is a weekly class dealing with the problem solving of beginning teacher problems. Finally, would be home visits under the guidance of a mentor. These steps assume that the candidate is already competent in subject matter and able to relate to the children.

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