Class Size Matters: Overcrowded and Under-Reached in the American Classroom by Christina Knowles

Snagged from eagnews.org
Snagged from eagnews.org

Unfortunately, we are at a point in history where teachers need to defend the importance of smaller classes on student achievement and future success, as if this were not common sense. This is a clear indication that lack of funding, or perhaps mismanagement of finances has become such an issue that those in charge of schools are trying to deny what we all intuitively know is true—one teacher cannot effectively teach 30 plus students in one class. The pressures of new teacher evaluations requiring personalized, individual instruction plans and nearly daily communication with parents creates an impossible situation for the teacher. Gone are the days when teachers merely brought home grading every night. Now teachers struggle to keep up with individual lesson plans, tracking individual students, documenting data, keeping up with parent contacts, and grading. Catching up and completing work is now impossible, no matter how many outside hours are put in, and the stress of these demands is driving experienced, quality teachers from the profession in a mass exodus, and they are quickly replaced by first year teachers who do not know what they are in for. On the middle school and high school level, teachers are required to personally know and teach five or more 30-plus-student classes of different students. The real injustice is to the student who is expected to focus in an overcrowded classroom with an overworked teacher who cannot possibly give them individual attention—that, and the fact that teachers continue to be held accountable for what students learn, despite the fact that class sizes and duties have become unmanageable for anyone, regardless of his or her skill, dedication, or experience.

As the last school year drew to a close at the high school where I teach, the faculty was called into the auditorium for a meeting with the district administration to discuss cuts in the budget that would result in letting some teachers go and letting vacated positions go unfilled. Before the cuts, my classes ranged from 28-38 students per class, which I have gotten used to, but according to research, are too large. I was grateful for these numbers because at one point the year before, most of my classes ranged from 45-52 students per class, which was completely unmanageable. We were reassured that class sizes would not go up much, but this did not prepare us for what came out of a high-level district leader’s mouth next. He spoke to an auditorium full of stressed-out teachers, who had just finished struggling to provide documentation of a vast array of new responsibilities for our yearly evaluations, many of which were not in our control at all, but also including one-on-one instruction, differentiation, and tracking of each individual student. He smiled and said in a completely casual but serious tone, “But we all know class size doesn’t matter if you’re a good enough teacher, right?” Audible gasps filled the auditorium. Shocked at the audacity of such a statement, I turned and gazed around the large room, taking in the stunned faces, the mouths dropped open in disbelief. The room became silent. It seemed everyone was speechless. Nervously, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and uttered a barely audible, “Umm, I disagree with that statement.” The room burst into conversation, and soon others snapped out of their stunned silence and began disputing the remark uttered so casually and without regard for common sense.

Nevertheless, cuts were made, and I started the year with 42 students in my largest class and 33 in my smallest. Couple that with a rigorous new set of responsibilities, Common Core requirements, three preps, and a new online program with which we were to become proficient, and the familiar thought popped into my head: What else can I do with my English degree? But worse than the large classes was the realization that we were just not respected anymore. The idea that our own district leadership thought we would fall for a pathetic line of flattery or shame us into admitting we must not be “good enough teachers” was just too much.

One of our evaluation requirements is that we research “best practices,” so I did just that. Guess what I discovered? I discovered that it is not only common sense, but that actual documented research shows that the optimal class size is between 15-18 students for achievement and future success. I would be thrilled with 25! Studies also show that the overall load of the teacher should be lightened, particularly for English teachers and teachers with a heavy grading load. A high school teacher should ideally have no more than 80 students total. This year I have 170 students, more than double the optimum.

I’ll let you read the research for yourself, but let me just speak from experience for a moment. The year that I had 52 students in one class—no learning occurred. I shouted over the students, no one could hear anything. In a class of 52 students, I could not even see over the heads to the back of the room. If every student murmured, it was a low roar, blocking out my voice. I spent most of my time trying to keep them safe when boys began wrestling in the back where I couldn’t see or when an argument broke out over a snatched notebook. I couldn’t even make my way through the desks to the back of the room. I wrote dozens of detentions to try and gain control, but most of the students ignored them, and I had no power to enforce them. Nothing happened to them if they didn’t show up, and I was criticized for writing too many detentions. On the rare occasion when I got them working on something, and I stopped to help one student, the entire class erupted into noise and chaos. I spent my entire evening calling parents and did not have time to grade the little homework that actually came in. The students complained that they couldn’t hear the instruction and did not understand what was going on. In 14 years of teaching, I have never previously had issues with classroom management. My room was not even large enough to fit that many desks, so some students were sitting on the floor. This year is not that bad. I have a quiet and controlled class, and our current administration supports our discipline, but students are not able to get one-on-one instruction, and it took a couple of months just to learn their names. The idea that I am supposed to get to know each of these students, their learning styles, tailor instruction to their needs, monitor their growth, provide tutoring, and keep parents informed is ludicrous. But that is exactly what is expected of me because it wouldn’t be a problem if I were “good enough.”

But if common sense and experience are not enough to convince you, I have listed the research here, complete with links because the evidence is too astronomically large to synthesize in this blog, and this is only a fraction of what I found. For your convenience, I will list the source after each, rather than at the end.

I found this one particularly interesting because we are supposed to avoid lecture-style classes in favor of more hands-on, engaging lessons, but the research shows large class sizes increase lecture-style teaching out of necessity. “The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), p5-21. ‘Good summary showing that “empirical evidence…suggests that there are eight deleterious outcomes associated with large-sized classes: (1) increased faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction, (2) less active student involvement in the learning process, (3) reduced frequency of instructor interaction with and feedback to students, (4) reduced depth of student thinking inside the classroom, (5) reduced breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning strategies used by students outside the classroom, (6) lower levels of academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades), (7) reduced overall course satisfaction with the learning experience, and (8) lower student ratings (evaluations) of course instruction.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#benefits%20for%20post-secondary%20education Cuseo, J. (2007).

     This one finds that keeping fewer teachers for budgetary reasons is not cost effective after all, particularly when funding is withheld for lower test scores. “This policy brief summarizes the academic literature on the impact of class size and finds that class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.  Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.” Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). “Does Class Size Matter?” National Education Policy Center Policy Brief.

   “’Further research suggests that schools are organized more for purposes of maintaining control than for promoting learning’ (McNeil, 1988), and ‘Small class size is integral to this individualization: Teachers should be responsible for a smaller number of students so that they can get to know each student and his or her learning preferences. It takes time to get to know one’s students and to individualize the learning experience, and doing so requires concentration. In a classroom with a large number of students, such attention simply isn’t an option. Powell (1996) examined independent schools in the United States and learned that private preparatory schools value both small school and small class size as necessary conditions for student success. In 1998, the average private school class size was 16.6 at the elementary level and 11.6 at the high school level. By contrast, the average class size was 18.6 in public elementary schools and 14.2 in public high schools’ (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999)”(Wasley, from Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time Is Now). http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb02/vol59/num05/Small-Classes,-Small-Schools@-The-Time-Is-Now.aspx

   “Babcock, P., & Betts, J.R. (2009). Reduced Class Distinctions: Effort, Ability, and The Education Production Function. Journal of Urban Economics, Vol. 65, pp. 314–322. ‘Empirical findings indicate that class-size expansion may reduce gains for low-effort students more than for high-effort students, Results here…suggest …that larger gains for disadvantaged students may have occurred because small classes allow teachers to incentivize disengaged students more effectively, or because students are better able connect to the school setting in small classes.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

   King, J. (2008). Bridging the Achievement Gap: Learning from three charter schools (part 1), (part 2), (part 3), (part 4). Columbia University (Doctoral Dissertation).  “School size and class size are linked to the five key cultural values ….: a culture that teaches effort yields success; a culture of high expectations; a disciplined culture; a culture built on relationships; and a culture of excellence in teaching. Small classes and small overall student loads allow teachers to spend more time working with individual students to help them track their own progress and develop their skills – thus reinforcing the principle that effort yields success. High expectations are easier to maintain when teachers know their students well (because of small school and class size), can identify whether a student’s poor performance on an assessment reflects deficiencies in their effort or their understanding, and can respond accordingly.” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity

     Tienken, C.H., & Achilles, C.M. (2006). Making Class Size Work in the Middle Grades. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 3.1, pp 26-36. “In a NJ middle school, reducing class size led to a reduction in the failure rate from 3-6% to only 1%, despite a concurrent increase in 40-60 students, and a 7% increase in poverty students, without any additional spending. Gains in test scores were statistically significant with .80 effect size.”

NCTE: National Council of Teachers of English. (1990). Statement on Class Size and Teacher Workload: Secondary. “The Secondary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that schools, districts, and states adopt plans and implement activities resulting in class sizes of not more than 20 and a workload of not more than 80 for English language arts teachers by the year 2000.”

     Bernstein, K. J. (2000). Class size does matter. Prince George’s and Montgomery Journal Newspapers “Excellent essay by a high school teacher, explaining why both smaller classes and a smaller teaching load is essential to improve student achievement.”

   MetLife, Inc.. (2012). The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. A 2011 survey of teachers, parents and students. “Teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59% who were very satisfied to 44% who are very satisfied, the lowest level in over 20 years….Teachers with lower job satisfaction are more likely to report that in the last year they have seen increases in: average class size (70% vs. 53%)…One in seven (14%) students agrees that their classes are so big that their teachers don’t really know them….”

   I would like to point out that I did find a few, very few articles that stated they found no significant difference in achievement levels between large and small classes, but in these studies, a large class was defined as 25 students. I agree, 25 students is manageable. I do not have any classes as small as 25.

     Certainly, we all know schools are suffering with budgetary cuts and the money only goes so far, but cutting teachers is not the place to save money. Cut anything else first—anything. We are driving over-worked teachers out of education and under-reached students out of school. Although we would all love to create 21st century students with skills in the latest technology, the most important thing is learning critical thinking, critical reading, and effective communication. I can do that with a book, a pencil, and a piece of paper—and a reasonable number of students. But I don’t think we need to go that far. I want our students to have the latest technology and up-to-date text books.

I have a better plan. I think we should cut excess at the top first—before ever considering cutting the boots on the ground. We have someone in charge of everything, but not enough people to carry it out. School leaders should trust the professionals they hire to do the job without the micro-management of a highly paid director of this and director of that—people we never even actually see as teachers, but answer to indirectly. We spend money on publicity specialists hired to sell the fantasy that we offer the best education in our over-crowded classrooms (and I’m not attacking our district—we are one of the best, but I am criticizing the educational model in general). We buy expensive airtime on radio stations and on local television. Here’s a novel idea—let’s hire lots of good quality teachers, reduce class sizes so students get personal attention and help, and actually become the best district. Word of mouth boasting from parents and students who actually experience an excellent education will attract more students than an inflated and unsubstantiated claim of excellence on a TV advertisement ever will. And when they come, we do not let the classes become overgrown once again, but we hire more teachers. If we really mean to do what’s best for kids, smaller classes are essential.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2014

Helicopter Moms, Cowardly Superintendents, and Fed-Up Teachers by Christina Knowles

Helicopter-ParentingI’ve been complaining about government interference in education for years. But forget the government. There’s a new clueless interloper on the scene. She’s been around forever, but she’s just recently gained the power of a government agency. She is the overprotective, overinvolved mom. Let’s be clear. I believe parents have a say in their children’s education. I believe they should complain if a teacher is doing something wrong or treating their child unfairly. I am a parent, and I would not sit idly by if my child was receiving less than a quality education or was being mistreated. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am also not referring to the majority of parents who reasonably contact teachers and administrators with their concerns, discuss situations, and offer fair solutions or advice. I’m referring to parents who worship their children to the point that they unknowingly handicap them and effectively destroy any chance of them receiving useful skills or an education that will serve them their entire lives simply because they can’t bear to see their child struggle. We’ve all met them. They complain about every grade, write their children’s papers, excuse them when they want to stay home and play video games, demand testing as soon as their child says an assignment is too difficult, and blame the teacher when their child continues to fail all their subjects, or in some cases, merely don’t receive As. Unfortunately, some struggle is required for learning anything new. If a child never struggles in a class, they are not thinking, being challenged, or doing any of the work necessary to learn a new skill. They are merely doing what they already know how to do.

In the past teachers were trusted to institute their own guidelines, within reason, to suit their style, the children’s needs, and their subject matter. The same model does not work in every class. With the passing of new programs and laws such as No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core Standards, came a host of rules and regulations of how a teacher should teach and grade. Our classes are lumped into categories such as English, Science, Math, and History, among others, regardless of their specialty. Each of these categories has their own standards, which may or may not make sense in the specific class. All of these standards have the same weight, regardless of their real world importance, and a standard for turning things in on time or turning in things at all, does not exist, even though in the real world for which we are preparing students, no one cares what a person knows if they are unwilling to produce any action. However, in school, it no longer matters what a student does, only what they know, and it is the teacher’s sole responsibility to figure out what they do know if the student is unwilling to share that information.

Add to this the fact that teachers are the only ones held accountable for what the student learns, and we have some very overworked and frustrated teachers shaking their heads at the system. Obviously, there is no motivation for the student, and this also is seen as the fault of the teacher. Of course, scores drop and desperate administrators dealing with angry parents and threatening superintendents implement one experiment after another trying to stem the flood of apathy and poor test scores. No system sticks around long enough to get an accurate evaluation over a period of time because as soon as little Johnny complains that he doesn’t like it, our overprotective mom rushes to the superintendent to rescue him. For some reason beyond my comprehension, some superintendents and administrators cower in fear at the angry parent and immediately give in, ordering the teacher to make it easier on Johnny while threatening that the teacher had better not let Johnny’s test scores slip. If you aren’t one of these parents, maybe you’re thinking I’m exaggerating. I assure you, I am not.

Recently a situation like this happened on a grand scale affecting every teacher in my building. A couple of years ago, the teachers at the school where I work were forced to implement a modified form of Standards Based Grading. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a system where no points are accumulated and formative homework is not counted. Students are given letter grades on summative assessments that fall into the Common Core Standards. They are allowed to re-do these assessments, erasing earlier grades that were not passing, re-take every test, ignore deadlines on assignments (because we only care about what they know), and any poor grades would be replaced by newer grades as they learn. This made things much easier for students and much harder for teachers. Teachers now have to spend hours at home creating new tests for re-takes and re-grading tests, papers, and projects while also grading the new work that comes in. Most teachers thought that this was unreasonable and too easy for the students, so we implemented a few rules to make it more challenging and to create some incentive to do the work. We made some restrictions. For example, if a student has an F in one standard, he would not be able to receive higher than a C in that category. Each category is calculated together to receive the overall class grade. If a student failed an entire standard, he could not receive higher than a C in the class. Also, we made a rule that if a student took a test over and did worse, then they would receive the most recent grade.

But Johnny didn’t like that. Now it would be risky to keep taking the same tests over again without studying. In addition, Johnny didn’t like it when he had two Bs and two As and ended up with a B in the class even though the two As were in categories that hardly mattered, and the Bs were in important categories. Johnny thought he deserved an A because—well, just because. Johnny ran home and complained to his mom, and she was furious. She’d take care of that mean teacher trying to educate her son by actually holding him accountable for his work. So Johnny’s mom got a few parents together and went to the school board and superintendent. They demanded records from the overworked administrators and harassed the teachers. They circulated petitions and filed complaints. By the way, Johnny was already receiving free tutoring from the teacher after the teacher was supposed to be home with her family. The teacher was also providing notes for Johnny because Johnny has a hard time copying words off the board when he is playing games on his phone. Johnny also got to use the teacher’s notes on his tests because he has trouble remembering stuff for his modified tests. He only has to read half of his novel because he can’t concentrate on reading when he is almost to the next level of his video game. But anyway, I digress. Johnny’s mom chewed out the superintendent about the mean teachers at his school, and the superintendent asked her what she would like to happen. Johnny’s mom said she wanted all the grades to be rounded up, no restrictions about Fs hurting grades, and she wanted only Johnny’s highest grades to count on his test re-takes. She also demanded that her new rules should be retroactive, and the teachers should have to go back and change all the grades from the previous semester to fit the new rules if the student asked (the grades that were done exactly as the administration dictated before). The superintendent said, “Of course,” and ordered all the teachers to comply. He also made sure the teachers knew that their test scores had better not drop, or they would receive a poor evaluation. It’s too bad Johnny’s mom doesn’t demand a smaller class size, but she never mentions the fact that there are 45 students in his class because she voted against the measure that would have reduced it. She doesn’t want that school to get any more of her money than they already do. Besides, the superintendent says that class size doesn’t matter “if you’re a good enough teacher.”

True story. Johnny is not one boy but represents many. Johnny’s mom is not one parent but a vocal minority. I don’t blame the students. They are good kids, and I love them. It’s human nature for them to take advantage of the system they are caught in, and I applaud the ones who resist the urge, who do their best and work hard despite it—and they do exist, but even they often admit that they have lost motivation and a great deal of their work ethic in this system. This is why I hear from college professors more and more that the biggest problem with incoming college students in our area is no longer what they don’t know, but their expectation of being coddled. They expect to turn things in late for full credit, they expect to miss class with no repercussions on their grades, and expect to re-do assignments and tests. In short they are not prepared for college in ways beyond academic knowledge. Unfortunately for Johnny, his mom holds no sway with the college professor.

As the system continues to spiral out of control, quality, experienced teachers are being driven out of education faster than new ones can graduate. I fear that by the time my students have children in school, school will have become nothing more than a daycare center catering to their every whim and staffed by paraprofessionals making minimum wage. Quality teachers with advanced degrees will not linger forever in a field that devalues them, holds them to ridiculous evaluation standards that are wholly out of their control, and subjects them to taking orders and abuse from overprotective parents who know absolutely nothing about educating their children.

Something has to be done about this mentality of scapegoating the teacher, blaming her for the actions of everyone around her and ignoring the enormous sacrifice she daily makes to educate other people’s children. States and districts pile more and more meaningless busywork on the already stretched teacher while, at the same time, removing all responsibilities from the students. We ignore the fact that most teachers work between 60 and 70 hours per week while being paid for 40. We demand that they provide individual instruction in a class of 45 students, which by the way, is impossible, yet part of her yearly evaluation. We hold her responsible for someone else’s motivation level, while removing most methods of creating this motivation. We make her accountable for things completely out of her control like whether or not the student communicates with his parent about grades or the student taking the initiative to seek out learning opportunities on his own. Why are we so eager to take away all responsibility from our children and place it on the teacher? Does anyone really think that is good for kids? If so, I hope they are prepared to support their children well into their thirties. As for the rest of us, we need to give back to teachers their autonomy and control over that for which they are held accountable. It is not fair to demand results, and then tie their hands in achieving those results. The crisis in our education system has reached critical mass, and we, as teachers, will no longer passively accept the blame.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Photo from teenlife.com

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