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Class Size Matters

Gov. Bill Haslam downplayed concerns today that budget cuts would hurt schools by increasing class sizes.  “Most studies have shown that teacher class size is not as direct a relationship to achievement as people have thought in the past, that having a great teacher with 25 students is better than having a mediocre teacher with 18 students, OK?,” Haslam said today.   I agree that it is much better for a student to be in a crowded classroom with a great teacher than in a classroom with 15 students, if that teacher is mediocre at best.  I do believe that the quality of the teacher has a huge impact on learning.  This raises several questions, including, how does the state determine who is a great teacher?  How is it measured?  The current answer includes test scores.  That is a blog post for another time…

Another concern, and a more pressing one for me, is class size.  In Tennessee, we currently average 30 students per class in grades 7 – 12, but by law, we can have 35 in a classroom.  In my personal experience, I normally have 27 – 35 students.  It is really difficult to teach a class containing 35 students.  I explain it to my students this way:  Our class periods are 90 minutes long.  There are 35 of you.  How much of my individual time do you get per day?  (Math problem…)  That’s right, about 2.7 minutes per day.  This means we must learn as a group.  Normally, this would not be a problem.  My Pre Calculus students handle this very well.  It does make me sad that there are several in the class that I do not get to know very well.  I don’t have time to listen to personal stories from each of them or talk about their crazy weekends or last night’s game.  Don’t get me wrong, I try, but it is really hard.  The quiet students tend to fall through the cracks when there are 35.  My relationship suffers with my honor students, but I don’t feel like the learning does to a significant degree.  Let’s be honest, most of these students would learn if you placed them in front of a computer with random math videos and then asked them to answer 10 questions in a row correct.  My role in the room could be optional. 

My standard level classes are another story.  With the adoption of new standards and the gaps in learning that are a result of implementing them all at one time, a class of 35 is just too many.  I have several students that can not learn in a lecture environment and when I put them in small groups, 7 small groups is too much for one classroom.  I prefer not to lecture.  I want students to learn and discover math on their own and not just copy or mimic steps or algorithms I demonstrate on the SmartBoard.  For learning to be authentic and memorable, students must have the ability to direct their own learning with input from the instructor.  This is very difficult to do with a crowded classroom.

With all the pressure placed on teachers to have high-test scores, anything that can be done to ease our burden is not only welcomed, it is necessary.  Yes, Governor Haslam, I can teach 35 students at one time.  Yes, I can do my best to get them to pass their standardized test.  No, I can not build a meaningful relationship with all of them, encouraging  them to value education and continue their learning beyond the classroom.  I can not discover their individual interests and goals and tailor my instruction to motivate them.  Believe me, I will try, but I will fail.  Instead of believing random studies (I can find my own study) believe the teachers:  Class size matters.

Categories: General
  1. Betsy Gilbert
    July 17, 2011 at 2:40 am

    Did you know that the ICLE also believes that class size isn’t really so important either. I read some of their literature on line and it said it would be fine for school systems to save money by increasing class size by two or three students! Well, I don’t believe that is the case when there are already 30 or 35 in the class. I would love to see Gov. Haslam teach a class of 35 students for a semester wouldn’t you?

    • July 22, 2011 at 8:52 pm

      I saw the study that ICLE referred to on class size. I was suprised. I think their stance is that it is not the biggest bang for your buck in education. It does help, but not enough to justify the cost. You are right, going from 17 to 20 is not a big deal, but 30 to 33 is a big difference. I can handle one large class, but not three large classes in one day. I would say if you gave Gov. Haslam a choice for his own child, he would choose a smaller class.

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