Is class size a worthy issue for presidential debate?

May 28, 2012 by

By Barry Stern, Ph.D. Senior Adviser, Haberman Educational Foundation

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are thoughtful men. Both have a more nuanced view of class size than teachers who know that it’s less work for them when classes are small. But this election is not about making life easier for teachers. States and local school boards can work on that. This national election is about jobs, economic growth and restructuring the public sector in order to reduce our out-of-control national debt and thus prevent economic calamity.

Class size is simply not a federal issue. Educators should be asking how kids can get a good education when the federal government and most states are broke. More is going out of state treasuries than is coming in thus forcing tradeoffs. Inevitably, cuts to education result in bigger classes and fewer programs.

So when are educators going to ask, “How can we change the model to accommodate larger classes without sacrificing quality?” With most economists saying it will take years to recover from the deep 2008-10 recession, that would seem a prudent question.

We should start by examining assumptions about class size. When does it matter? Answer – when (1) there is one teacher for one class, (2) students have special needs, and (3) students exhibit behavioral or disciplinary problems. Let’s focus on #1 – one teacher for one class. Why do we deliver education that way? If we persist doing it that way, clearly small is better; big classes are hard for one person to manage. But what can communities do when the model is becoming unaffordable?

One teacher for a small class makes the most sense for our youngest students particularly K-3. That’s when kids are learning to read, do math, socialize, build their bodies, etc., and missing basic building blocks can result in permanent deficits later on. A teacher’s deep knowledge of individual children undoubtedly can help them reach crucial milestones for normal development.

The one teacher for one class model begins to break down in middle and high school when students become more interested in peers than teachers and academics. Almost unexceptionally our teenagers move every 50 minutes to a different teacher and a different group of peers. For most students the best part of the school day is between classes when they can see or text their friends, or after school where they can become competent in areas of their choosing (competitive teams, etc).

Outstanding teachers can handle large classes. They do so by continually engaging students, fostering mutual help and responsibility for discipline, organizing the class differently than if it were small, and using technology (e.g. courseware) and teacher aides to provide individual attention. Unfortunately, classrooms with such teachers, are rare. Academic progress is stuck in low gear despite large expenditures relative to the rest of the world.

Teacher quality and organizational abilities aside, the traditional factory model school with only one teacher in the classroom at a time produces a type of education neither aligns with the needs of employers nor adolescent psychology. Since the factory model usually requires small class sizes for success, and these cost more, it is no longer financially sustainable.

The school model for today’s teenagers has to be about getting the kids on the teachers’ side so that they care about their future and develop in their minds a compelling vision of success. How to do that? Create team-oriented, computer-assisted, project-based, team-taught cross-disciplinary classes that do the job teenagers want schools to do – help them become and feel competent and make friends. Such a design would require schools to leave the factory model behind and replace it with more of a “house system” where 25-60 students stay with the same 2-4 teachers for all/most of the school day. In that way teachers can model for students the kinds of intense collaboration and teamwork typically required for success in today’s workplace.

Instructional methods would be just like those used by sports teams and TV programs like American Idol and Dancing with the Starts — highly intensive and focused with well-researched steps on how to achieve total mastery while accommodating each person’s best learning or high performance style. High performance also requires emotional intelligence (EI) and skills to de-escalate conflict and overcome disappointment. High performing schools teach EI and build character while building academic skills. Such schools produce graduates that employers and colleges want -self-starters who learn fast and can collaborate effectively within and across work groups.

Students in the best schools want the same things as workers in the best companies. They want to be driven, exceed expectations, and be part of a group with a higher purpose and winning mission. They want to stay together long enough to produce excellence. And they want teammates and bosses who watch their back while helping them grow.

To be sure, better standards, tests, teacher quality, pay and management practices are part of the mix. But to do these without fundamentally restructuring middle and high schools along the lines suggested will result in more of the same – high cost and low to middling skills among most students. The future of schooling in grades 6-12 will belong to information technology, high degrees of teacher collaboration, closer collaboration with employers, and more opportunities for students to take responsibility for their own education and the well being of their communities. Schools bent on trying to perfect the expensive yet obsolete factory model will no doubt continue to advocate smaller classes as they have for 30 years. Those days are over. Mitt and Barack know it, but they can’t say it. But we educators should!

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