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School & District Management Opinion

Smaller Classes Serve a Larger Purpose

By Marc Vincenti — October 24, 2017 4 min read
Illustration of an old phone with a home on one side and students on the other
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Smaller high school classes could revive among teachers the lost art of phoning parents at home. Teachers could call simply to rave about how a student is doing in math or history or Spanish—hymns of praise that, in my routine phone calls during 15 years of English teaching at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif., were often followed by parents’ muffled sobs of relief. And a more confident learner would waltz into my classroom for the rest of the semester.

But I often didn’t have small classes—I sometimes had upwards of 30 to 35 students at a time. And many of them needed more attention than I could give. In recent years, clusters of student suicides in Palo Alto’s two public high schools have rocked our community. A dozen teenagers have taken their lives since 2009. Many others contemplate it. The city’s adolescent suicide rate is four to five times the national average. Gunn is also a high-achieving school in an affluent community, and seniors are supposed to end up at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT—not gone from this world. In the midst of sorrow, guilt, and fear, the district has been seeking answers and solutions to focus on students’ mental health and wellness.

I left the classroom in 2010. In 2014, I founded a citizens’ coalition of professors, lawyers, and CEOs. We engage the school board and other local leaders with the goal of creating healthier schools and easing our high schoolers’ stress. Of the six steps our coalition suggests for improving wellness, chief among them is paring down class size. The district’s troubling projection last spring that our high school population would increase 16 percent by 2020 only makes this need more urgent.

Still, what I call right-sized classes—say 20 students per class—cost a pretty penny. Smaller classes require more teachers and those teachers require salaries. Studies have linked smaller classes to student success. There are several reasons why, for our students’ and teachers’ health, we need to think about smaller classes.

For the students in larger classes, there’s less of a chance they’ll get called on in discussions, get swift and tailored feedback on their homework, or have tête-à-têtes with their teacher, who may be shouldering an overall load of 125-150 students.

I know that 20 students in a classroom feels like a team, 25 feels like an audience, and anything above that begins to feel unmanageable."

What may be less obvious is that the teacher who has the benefit of more time can give an essay a second read; reconsider a C+; go to a school basketball game or concert or play (yes, teachers want to do this); or listen to the downcast students who apologize for missing homework and want so badly to add that it’s because of a parental divorce or a social-media humiliation.

Look even more closely at that smaller classroom, and you’ll see how students have openings to ask their teacher those questions that a lecture on the mental-health stigma or a trip to the school’s wellness center might not answer. I fielded such questions daily—usually wedged in before the bell or during a pause in the classroom action. They were often posed with worried, teenage eyes: “Mr. V., will you mark me down if I handwrite tomorrow’s reading log?” “Mr. V., is this thesis statement OK?” A teacher’s answer is a cooling hand to the hot brow of student stress.

Let’s not forget that smaller classes give teachers more time to communicate not just with students, but with their parents or guardians. Bridging the gap between school and home to lavish well-deserved praise on students works wonders for the average adult’s anxiousness about how the heck their child is faring during the school day.

Now, if you still believe (as many do) that classes of 20 aren’t actually much more productive than classes of 35, I hope you don’t also believe it’s as easy to weed 100 square feet as it is to water them. Some educators blithely assert that a large class can sometimes feel like a small one, but that’s usually for a teaching style heavier on lecture than on getting to know the students as people (which, as research tells us, is essential to motivate them). Not to mention the daily wear and tear on educators when trying to juggle a full teaching load and meaningful relationships with lively young people who all have different needs and experiences. We can either choose to be less effective in our practice or exhaust ourselves—neither of which is beneficial to students or our own well-being.

Our students’ academic plates are already overflowing. Our school environments are plagued by grade reporting every three weeks, sleep deprivation, and constant social-media dependence. As a teacher, I know that 20 students in a classroom feels like a team, 25 feels like an audience, and anything above that begins to feel unmanageable.

If we in Palo Alto—with its roughly 4,000 high schoolers—had classes small enough to give students the attention they deserve, that would mean teachers could place thousands of additional calls to parents and guardians in a school year. That would mean thousands of additional hands called on and thousands of personal conversations between teachers and students that would increase their sense of belonging. Isn’t that exactly the kind of connection that any school district so badly needs?

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Smaller Classes Serve a Larger Purpose

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