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