Posted by: minnow | August 23, 2008

Class Size–Is Smaller Better?

While many problems face our public schools some of them could be relatively easy fixes if we are willing to invest in our schools and our children.  Obviously unsafe environments must be a first priority.  Yet, after we make our buildings safe what helps students the most?  Two answers often rise to the forefront of the public school discussion—the need for smaller classes and the desire to hire better teachers. 

Improving teacher quality is both complicated and controversial.  Meeting standards and improving test scores should not be the only measure.  Yet other qualities are more difficult to assess.  I obviously have my own opinion of how a classroom should look and what training a teacher should include; I’ve already spent several blogs spouting off about learning “disabilities”, multiple intelligence, and the typical classroom. 

While class size is only one part of the equation, we can readily see how it impacts education.  Whether talking about grading papers or answering questions there is simply less teacher to go around the more students there are in class.  Large numbers of students negatively affect a teacher’s desire to give multiple writing assignments as well as his or her ability to offer detailed feedback.  At the same time, it is criminal to expect children to learn to write when they are not given multiple opportunities to write and timely feedback on their writing.  In one of my second son’s classes he had weekly writing assignments but did not get a single assignment back from the teacher until the end of the quarter.  How can students improve when they do not get feedback before each new writing assignment?  A paper returned to my youngest son received a letter grade of a C.  The only comment on the entire six pages, however, was the word “good” written next to the first paragraph on the first page.  Can anyone explain to me how such a paper will help him become a better writer? 

As a sub I once took a class for an entire quarter.  My students wrote six essays in a nine week period.  Each paper was graded with a detailed comment sheet covering five different criteria: organization, development, mechanics, style and diction, and content.  All the papers I received on time were returned before the next assignment was due.  I spent a half hour to forty-five minutes explaining to my students where and how their papers did or did not meet the criteria for a quality paper.  I had twenty-five students which meant I spent a minimum of twelve and a half hours per assignment just grading papers.  Twelve and a half hours I was not paid for.  Twelve and a half hours I did not spend with my own family.  Teachers with one hundred and twenty-five students simply can not afford to A). give as many writing assignments, or B). spend time writing detailed comments on each paper.  If we expect teachers to assign and properly grade multiple writing assignments we must be willing to give them fewer students.  The work load for these teachers is simply unreasonable otherwise.

In addition to lowering a teacher’s work load, smaller class sizes have other advantages to larger ones.  They are more conducive for class discussions, giving each student a better opportunity to contribute.  Small group activities are more easily managed.  Time spent handing out books, collecting papers, taking attendance, etc. is decreased.  One-on-one opportunities between students and the teacher increase.  Oral presentations by individual students or small groups can happen more frequently when less overall class time must be set aside to accomplish such projects.  Finally, teachers can more quickly assess whether or not students understand new material when they have fewer students they need to monitor.  These additional advantages are true for most every content area although teachers with a large writing component to their content area benefit the most from a lower teacher student ratio.

Again, studies have shown that smaller classes result in improved student performance both in writing and in test scores.  Some experts even go as far as to suggest that smaller classes can make up for some other disadvantages, such as economic disparities.  The problem is that we need to act on what we have learned.

 

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