Education Opinion

Class Size as an Empowerment Issue

By Gene I. Maeroff — January 09, 1991 7 min read

The debate over class size is surely one of the most exasperating controversies in education. Common sense dictates that smaller is better, yet findings from research produce no consistently compelling evidence that this is so. Thus, like belief in a Supreme Being, confidence about the worth of small classes is an article of faith, unproven and inspiring skepticism in nonbelievers. It might be profitable to shift direction in this debate and approach it from another vantage. Forget about whether students learn more in smaller classes, the issue usually cited as justification for reducing class size. Instead, focus on the impact on teachers.

Teachers may pay a price for having larger classes even if adding students to a class does not undermine learning. Is it advantageous, in other words, to tolerate large classes if doing so is apt to demoralize teachers and perhaps drive them from the profession, regardless of the effect on student achievement?

One way to answer this question is to filter it through the prism of teacher empowerment and see what emerges. From this perspective, large classes may be the bête noire of teachers in an era when they are finally getting some respect.

Previously unpublished data from a survey of teachers around the country, gathered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for The Condition of Teaching 1990, show that classes that teachers consider too large consistently affect their attitudes in adverse ways. Student achievement was not examined in this study.

In computer runs done from the perspective of 25 separate variables, H. Eugene Hass, a senior fellow at Carnegie, found that in each instance teachers who deemed their typical class as “too large"--and this was more than a third of all teachers--felt less sanguine than other teachers about their working conditions.

If status, knowledge, and access to decision making are vital underpinnings of empowerment, as I proposed in The Empowerment of Teachers, then large classes, or at least the inability to cope with them, are an obstacle to empowerment. And, if, in the long run, teachers who are not empowered are less satisfied teachers, then it could be that the cause of education will suffer.

Furthermore, the school-reform movement is bound to be impeded if teachers with larger classes simply don’t believe they have the time to participate in activities that are crucial to bringing about change. Reform cannot be carried out in the spare time of teachers; if they feel harried, teachers are less apt to learn about and implement needed improvements.

What we have here, to be sure, are perceptions. As it turns out, the statistics show that about 15 percent of the teachers who consider their typical class “too large” actually have classes below the average size for the grade level. But ultimately perception counts most because it determines their feelings and actions, regardless of the accuracy of the perceptions.

When it comes to conditions affecting status, teachers who consider their classes “too large” are less likely than other teachers to say that they are treated as professionals, that they would become a teacher if making the decision again, that they are as enthusiastic about teaching as when they entered the profession, that they are planning to teach until they retire, or that they are satisfied with their jobs.

Anyone who speaks much with teachers soon comes to realize that the cumulative effect of such feelings leads teachers to have low professional self-esteem.

Teachers who are convinced that their classes are “too large” also give higher priority than other teachers to developing schedules that permit longer breaks for lunch and personal care, to the importance of having their own classrooms, and to having adequate office/carrel space. It might be fair to say they are obsessed by the size of their workloads and crave better working conditions.

Teachers who consider themselves overburdened, according to the Carnegie data, are more likely to report that they have very little or no scheduled preparation time. They give higher priority than other teachers to achieving more planning time--again an apparent reflection of their belief that a shortage of time interferes with their ability to meet the demands of their class load.

Empowerment depends on teachers’ becoming more knowledgeable, as well as having higher self-regard. A goal is for them to be inclined to make themselves better informed in their subjects, in teaching methods, and in a host of ways in which they can assist children and families. Teachers must find time, informally and formally, to be learners if they are to be responsible recipients of increased power.

But if they believe their classes are too large, they may presumably feel too pressed and dispirited to make time available for professional growth, which, in turn, may leave them less equipped intellectually to help in school improvement.

One way teachers can grow more knowledgeable is by observing and interacting with other teachers, but if they are disinclined or unable to do this they are apt to stagnate. Teachers with large classes are more likely than others to report that time for meeting with colleagues during school is “not regularly available.”

So far as access to decision making is concerned, teachers with large classes are treading the waters of frustration. They are less satisfied than other teachers with the control they exert over their professional lives, and they give higher priority than other teachers to changing conditions so that they might have a louder voice in setting school policy.

Teachers who feel under too much pressure to participate in deliberations about school and district policies are that much further removed psychologically from envisioning themselves as decisionmakers, and chances for their empowerment are diminished.

Finally, there is an additional, even more insidious aspect to the perceived plight of teachers with classes that are “too large.” They are largely the very same teachers who are more likely to say that their classes are filled with the students who are the neediest and most difficult to educate. More than other teachers, they assert that their students are seriously deficient in basic skills. They are least likely to believe that their students are as well prepared as were students in previous years, or that their students are willing to work hard.

A cynic might maintain that American teachers who judge their classes as “too large” are merely the cry babies of the profession and, given their sour attitudes, are apt to view everything around them with a sense of gloom.

After all, Tommy Tomlinson pointed out that “Japanese teachers manage to provide large classes of pupils with academic experience that American teachers believe can only be accomplished with smaller classes.” He was the author of Class Size and Public Policy, a publication of the U.S. Education Department.

And an international comparison by the Educational Testing Service found that Korean 13-year-olds had the highest average mathematics proficiency among students from 12 locales, including the United States, even though Korean middle-school classes have 40 to 55 students.

Yet, how likely is it that American teachers who perceive their classes as ''too large” can be enticed to enlist in the war for better schools? They may be too busy feeling sorry for themselves to be able to contribute to school improvement. Even if it is granted that students fare as well with them as they would in smaller classes--and that takes a leap of faith-their sense of bearing a burden needs to be addressed. These are candidates for burnout, not for empowerment.

It is clearly imperative to give greater attention to helping teachers develop better strategies for instructing and managing their classes. Showing them how to use a more child-centered approach to instruction, for example, might ease some of the burden they put on themselves when they think it always necessary to be center-stage. Simultaneously, steps should be taken to provide relief by improving the basic working conditions of teachers--all teachers. And, if they actually are teaching the neediest students, they require greater support services.

Let’s face it. There will never be enough money to lower class sizes appreciably, and some researchers wonder anyway how much difference fewer students would make in some classrooms. “Many teachers whose classes have been reduced, even by substantial numbers of students, do not change their teaching techniques to take advantage of the smaller classes,” Glen B. Robinson, director of Educational Research Services, has argued in the Phi Delta Kappan.

Debating the impact of class size on student learning will not change existing situations. The perceptions of teachers are the reality with which they live every day in the nation’s classrooms and they must learn how to coexist, in reasonable comfort, with that reality.