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Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Letters (continued)

Letters (continued)

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Faulty Calculation: Class-Size Satire Doesn't Compute

I don't understand why Gregory J. Cizek would offer the analysis of the class-size debate that appears in the Commentary section of your Dec. 8, 1999, issue ("How Cartoons and Calculators Resolved the Class-Size Debate"). In his essay, Mr. Cizek argues that the key variable affected by variations in class size is the amount of time a teacher can use attending to each student in a class. In the example he presents, a teacher with a class of 25 students, in a 50-minute period, can give 36 seconds to each student (out of the 15 minutes allotted for individual attention). Reduce the class size by 10 percent, Mr. Cizek suggests, and each student would then get 40 seconds of individual attention.

From what I've read of his previous writing, Mr. Cizek is a thoughtful and serious academic. Perhaps he is being facetious, and I'm just missing his intent. If he is serious, then his own example betrays his conclusion. No competent teacher teaches by moving around the room, every day, giving 40 seconds to each and every student. The example is ridiculous on its face.

The key issue in class-size discussions is this: Smaller classes presumably give teachers an enhanced opportunity to organize and direct the behavior of students in ways that result in greater amounts of prosocial behavior and higher levels of learning. The issue is not simply individualized attention; it is organizing and managing the class—and attending and responding to various individual students in the class within the contexts of whole-class and small-group and individual work. That's what good teachers do all the time, managing the whole class and attending to individuals. And if they have 24 students in their middle school math class instead of 32, presumably they have the opportunity to be more effective in generating student learning.

The question of what conclusions can be drawn from published class-size research is too complex to engage in this context, so I won't try. (I for one, however, am not inclined to take Eric A. Hanushek's work at the University of Rochester as the last word, given the intensely ideological character of Mr. Hanushek's previous expressions about school funding and his apparent confusion about the distinction between teacher-student ratio and actual class size.) I'll just reiterate to Mr. Cizek that I don't understand why he offers this simplistic and unrealistic analysis of how teachers would take advantage of smaller classes, if he wants me to consider his larger conclusions with seriousness.

David Marshak
Associate Professor
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

To the Editor:

Gregory J. Cizek's calculator tour might have been cute had there been more tongue in cheek and less sleight of hand. The Commentary is a miscalculated, but nevertheless dangerous, piece that is sure to find a niche in the minds of administrators and board members who determine class-size limits.

My science classes often approach 40 students, repeated five or even six times per day, so time for individual attention isn't my first concern. With almost 200 students, I ask myself as I plan for the day whether to do a lab or pass out worksheets. Should I disregard safety concerns yet again? Should student assessment require a full written response, or should I opt for the bubble sheet? Should I plan the field trip or not? Should I throw troubled John out of class with his next disruption (add a Sally with a large class), or should I take the time to deal with him as one human to another?

More important, should I continue in a career where schools warehouse students with the insulting expectation, as Mr. Cizek's referenced cartoon suggests, that "bigger" teachers are needed? I know how to provide quality experiences for my students. But it's the large class size that often provides sufficient disincentive to dissuade me from giving them these experiences.

Perhaps Mr. Cizek's calculator will next inform the teaching profession just how "big" we need to be.

Chet Bolay
Science Chair
Cape Coral High School
Lee County, Fla.

To the Editor:

Gregory J. Cizek's Commentary makes one wonder just what kind of class he teaches. The fact that he is a college professor in a school of education might lead me to better understand his theory that teachers are the only beneficiaries from reduced class sizes.

If Mr. Cizek were a bona fide classroom teacher in today's elementary, middle, or high schools, he might change his tune. Discipline standards being as low as they are, multiple nonacademic issues confronting teachers being higher than in past years, and parental noninvolvement being at an all-time high are a few reasons why reduced class sizes would benefit all parties involved, including teachers.

When a person is out of touch with reality, a sure-fire way to bring him back to the real world where others live and work is to invite him to walk with you for a while. I extend the invitation to Mr. Cizek to come back to the classroom for a year. After that year is up, I would invite him to reconsider his viewpoint on reduced class sizes.

Peter R. Kortebein
Warren Woods Tower High School
Warren, Mich.

To the Editor:

Gregory J. Cizek argues against the wrong educational shibboleth. If, as he states, the smaller class size benefits the teacher substantially, by giving him or her more time to prepare lesson plans and actually teach the whole class, then surely that should be of great benefit to the students in the class. But more importantly, what he has really identified is the fallacy in the claim by too many educators that heterogeneously grouped classes are the best way to teach all students.

What Mr. Cizek has illuminated, as has William A. Proefriedt in his Commentary "Sorry, John. I'm Not Who You Thought I Was" (Dec. 8, 1999), is that the task of caring for large numbers of students with widely disparate talents and needs is beyond the ken of the average teacher. And let's face up to the fact that while we may be able to raise that average somewhat, given the very great need for new teachers, we certainly will not be able to raise a significant proportion of them to "master" status. This will be especially true if we fail to completely overhaul our teacher-training institutions, where the administrators and professors never really learned the lessons Dewey tried to teach them.

James R. Collier
Shelburne, Vt.

To the Editor:

Gregory J. Cizek's exercise with his pocket calculator is likely to generate angry responses from educators. Unfortunately for them, the preliminary findings from California support his assertion that teachers in smaller classes spend no more extra time with individual students than they did before.

Here is a direct quote from "Class Size Reduction in California: Early Evaluation Findings, 1996-1998," a state-commissioned report written by the Class Size Reduction Research Consortium:

"There were few differences in instructional practices between nonreduced and reduced-size 3rd grade classes. For example, teachers in reduced-size classes did not spend significantly more time during regular lessons working individually with students, which is one way that smaller classes might promote achievement. Similarly, there were no differences in curriculum content and very few differences in the frequency of teachers' use of specific instructional strategies or student activities in either language arts or mathematics."

The $4 billion that California has spent so far on class-size reduction has had one indisputable, tangible result. Since the program's inception, the California Teachers Association has added 30,000 new members. That's almost $400,000 in additional PAC revenues for the union to spend on school board races, along with another $12 million in dues income to spend as the CTA sees fit.

Mike Antonucci
Director, Education Intelligence Agency
Carmichael, Calif.

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Page 42

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