Education Opinion

The New Normal of Class Size Just Isn’t Normal

By Susan Graham — February 23, 2011 3 min read
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There was a Exceptional Country who taught in a shoe.
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do!
So she gave them some broth without any bread,
And she whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed!

Does class size matter?
Well, yes and no.
Welcome to the New Normal of public education.

A March 1999 research review, Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?, written by Ivor Pritchard and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, offers the following summary statements:

Overall, the pattern of findings drawn from the existing research leads to the following three conclusions: 1. A consensus of research indicates that class size reduction in the early grades leads to higher student achievement. Researchers are more cautious about the question of the positive effects of class size reduction in 4th through 12th grades. The significant effects of class size reduction on student achievement appear when class size is reduced to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students, and continue to increase as class size approaches the situation of a 1-to-1 tutorial. 2. The research data from the relevant studies indicate that if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students per class to below 20 students, the related increase in student achievement moves the average student from the 50th percentile up to somewhere above the 60th percentile. For disadvantaged and minority students the effects are somewhat larger. 3. Students, teachers, and parents all report positive effects from the impact of class size reductions on the quality of classroom activity.

In November 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank and

...urged districts to consider "modest but smartly targeted increases in class size."

In February 2011, the Racine, Wisconsin, Journal Times tells the story of a Racine County classroom where

Students in Jean Robles' kindergarten class are good at zipping coats, but only seven of 31 can tie shoes, a proportion that has gone down over time."I do a lot of shoe-tying," Robles said, explaining students developing fine motor skills can make shoe-tying difficult. "We figure they should (know how) by second grade."

Secretary Duncan has elementary age children. They go to public school in Arlington, Virginia. I have to wonder how he would feel about his kids being in a kindergarten class with a student/teacher ratio of 31/1? Well, he did acknowledge that

Up through third grade, research shows a small class size of 13 to 17 students can boost achievement. Parents, like myself, understandably like smaller classes.

But Jean Robles has twice that number and yet I notice that she doesn’t complain or blame anyone—and she sets a goal of getting everyone on task with shoe-tying by second grade. But what jumps off the page is 31 children in a kindergarten class! How does she do that?

Secretary Duncan says we need to adjust to the New Normal and increase productivity in our schools. He mentions

...in secondary schools, districts may be able to save money without hurting students, while allowing modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.

Meanwhile at the secondary level

The state of Michigan approved a plan for Detroit to close about half of its public schools and increase the average size of high-school classrooms to 60 students over the next four years to eliminate a $327 million deficit.

But that’s the average, and if you know anything about real live school, then you know that in some classes, averages don’t reflect realities. Advanced classes may be considerably smaller, but it’s likely that freshman English classes are going to be larger. Let’s do best-case scenario: that would mean a Language Arts teacher, teaching five periods a day with 60 students per class would have a student load of 300. How will that teacher tailor instruction for ethnically diverse kids, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities? And if we want every student to take Advanced Placement classes, or write regularly, for that matter, when will a teacher find time to read 300 essays or writing samples every week?

Well, Secretary Duncan reminds us that

Many high‐performing education systems, especially in Asia, have substantially larger classes than the United States. According to OECD data, secondary school classes in South Korea average about 36 students. In Japan, it's 33 students per class.

Okay, let’s say 36 then, but 60? And while reminding us about class size in Asia, did he forget that teachers in Korea and Japan have about half the student contact hours of their American counterparts? And did anyone factor in that those education systems have not been asked to attempt to prepare every student for college?

We would like to have small classes for everyone‐‐and it is good news that the size of classes in the U.S. has steadily shrunk for decades.

In Wisconsin organized labor is fighting back, but what is lost in the shouting is that it’s not just about the money. In fact teachers have said they’ll negotiate on the money. It’s about teachers having some say about working conditions that impact not only the teacher, but the welfare of the student. It’s about the children that for some reason, our society has decided will have to make do with the New Normal because the grownups refuse to consider New Revenue.

It may feel a little hopeless, but it’s not. We are not alone. In Mission, Kansas

....with limits on what private money can be used for and state funding cuts forcing the closure of schools and increases in class size, the parents want a judge to toss out state property tax caps so they can pay more for their schools.

They recognize that the New Normal is at odds with American Exceptionalism—the idea that we are a unique nation “of the people, by the people and for the people” that insures “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” for all of its citizens. We will not remain a great nation if we ask our children to bear the burden for adult fiscal irresponsibility, whether it’s on Wall Street or Main Street. We’ll do what all good parents do, and make some sacrifices for the welfare of our children.

In the meantime, we’re having a PTA Bingo Night and Bake Sale this Friday. Would anyone like to buy a ticket?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.