Who says class size doesn’t matter?!
While experts and policy makers argue about the ideal class size, what’s a teacher to do?
Second-grade teacher Heidi Salter says she first saw red over the issue of class size the day she was giving a little extra attention to a student who’d hit a tiny roadblock in her reading. As she coached the girl, Salter took her eyes off the learning-disabled boy in her class for about 10 minutes.
“When I looked back,” she says with a chuckle, “he’d colored himself red. Magic marker all over his face, arms anywhere there was skin. He’s a great kid. But I thought, my gosh, how can I do this? There are 26 other kids in the class who really need me too.”
There’s probably not a teacher in America who doesn’t know exactly how Salter feels. Federal, state, and local governments are pouring money into a variety of initiatives to reduce class size. But critics say such initiatives are oversimplified and misguided attempts to improve the quality of education. Meanwhile, many teachers are standing in front of classrooms with 10 more students than they expected to see. (For tips on coping with an oversize classroom, read “Make Big Beautiful!” on page 96.)
Burdens of the Big Class
A can-do sort, beginning her fourth year of teaching at the Beacon Hill Elementary School in Longview, Washington, Salter didn’t get mad at her magicmarker miscreant. Instead she devised various ways of coping with her large class. She recruited a grandmother to help correct spelling two mornings a week; started a “buddy reading” program pairing sixth-graders with her students; and assigned her most gifted students to assist those needing help.
“I think I am offering a quality education,” Salter says. “But what keeps me awake at night is wondering if I am giving my slower learners the support they really need. I should also be providing more challenges to the most talented students. And there are all the students in the middle somewhere who could be bumped up as far as achievement, but because they are able to work relatively independently, they don’t get the proper attention.”
Do all of Salter’s concerns hinge on the size of the class? “Absolutely,” she says. And an increasing number of teachers, parents, legislatures, governors, along with President Bill Clinton, would agree with her.
Last spring, Clinton proposed reducing class size to 18 in grades 1 through 3, down from a national average of 22. Clinton is also pushing for a $20.8 billion program to hire 100,000 new teachers over 10 years. But the measure is hardly a sure thing. Republicans favor a voucher system, which would allow dissatisfied parents to receive a government subsidy to pay for a portion of their children’s private-school costs.
Of course, there are already limits on class size in most school districts. But most teachers feel the limits are still too high. In Salter’s school district, class size is limited to 25 for first grade and 27 for second grade, with a teacher’s aide assigned to the classroom for an hour a day for every student over the limit. (This increases the adult to student ratio but does not actually reduce class size.) In New York City, by contrast, the average class size is 28, but it’s sometimes as large as 45.
More and more states are deciding there ought to be a legal limit to class size. Two dozen state legislatures, including New York’s, have passed or are considering passing legislation to reduce class size in primary grades. In California, Governor Pete Wilson enacted a $1 billion class reduction program two years ago.
But what is the perfect class size? In both New York and California, the magic number of students is set at 20. Some critics say that you don’t show real benefits until class size is 15. Others insist that we simply don’t have enough solid research to prove how class size affects student achievement.
While the experts argue, it is hard to find a teacher who isn’t convinced that smaller classes are better. Even two or three fewer students in a class, they say, provides a major opportunity to enhance the quality of education.
A Solution With Problems
Ironically, efforts to reduce class size have resulted in a high number of new teachers getting thrown into sink-or-swim situations. This leads critics to question the quality of education provided.
In 1996 for example, wholesale hiring was necessary to shrink class size in California to meet the Governor’s mandate. In some districts – Allum Rock on San Jose’s east side, for example – 100 percent of the teachers were new that year, and all were working with emergency credentials.
These teachers headed smaller classes, but had no experienced teachers to turn to for advice. “Unfortunately,” explains Lorraine Becker of the California Department of Education, “it’s the large urban districts like Allum Rock, with 17,000 students, a high percentage with limited English proficiency and low performance, that are forced to hire teachers with emergency credentials.”
This is particularly discouraging because an authoritative study of the effectiveness of classsize reduction (conducted over a four-year period in Tennessee) found that smaller classes benefit minority students at inner-city schools most. In California, which has a high percentage of such students, the first standardized test given after class-size reduction showed that students were not benefiting as much as in Tennessee. But then again, more than 1 million of the 4 million students in grades 2-11 who took the State Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam spoke little or no English, the only language in which the test was given.
Critics point to the situation in California as proof that spending millions on reducing class size alone can be a waste of scarce education dollars – dollars that might be spent on other initiatives.
Just a Little Smaller
Nevertheless, teachers overwhelmingly seem to support reduced class size. Shari Elmer, who teaches kindergarten at Loyola Elementary School in Los Altos, California, says the new 20-student cap meant she had four fewer students last year, and it made all the difference.
“The extra time got me inspired to try new things – things I could never have done before,” Elmer said. “I played word games with students. I used hand puppets. I never got the chance or had the time to do those kinds of things before.”
Elmer’s more was a schoolteacher too. In one of her mother’s old class pictures, Elmer counted 42 students. She was dumbfounded, but says, “I think in those days classes were very rigid. It was pretty much, ‘Turn to page 38.’ Today we try to be much more creative, more hands-on, and more responsive to individual needs. That’s what makes larger classes impossible.”
Melissa Natoli, a first-year teacher at Littleton Elementary in Parsippany, New Jersey; agrees. Last year, she subbed at the middle school in the same district, and did two stints overseeing an eighth-grade music class that had 80 students. “Basically,” Natoli says, “I let them work if they wanted, hang out if they wanted, and tried to keep order. There was a phone in the room, and I called the vice principle if anything started to happen. That was all that was possible with such a large class.”
This year, it’s different. The district added a fourth elementary school, hired new teachers, and cut the size of every class. Natoli is teaching fifth grade with 18 students. She sighs happily, “That’s just about right.”
MAKE BIG BEAUTIFUL!
All right, small is beautiful, but you’ve got big, maybe even humongous. What’s the leacher of an overpopulated classroom to do? Here are a few suggestions from leachers who faced the big squeeze, and found small solutions:
* Recruit parent volunteers. Also grandparents, aunts and uncles, third cousins twice removed, anyone able to help. Volunteers can oversee small groups, marshal projects, and bring new ideas and energy.
– Shari Elmer, Loyola Elementary School, Los Altos, California
* Create study nooks where the shy and serious can work. A throw rug makes a quiet corner. Rig a curtain in the hallway outside the classroom door, and put chair, table, and a flea-market lamp behind it.
– Loren James, Nishuane Elementary School, Montclair, New Jersey
* Let students share what they learn. When a pupil masters a skill, or is gifted, ask him or her to work with someone else in the class. Students from the older grades often enjoy being teamed up with first- and second-graders as “buddy” instructors.
– Heidi Salter, Beacon Hill Elementary School, Longview, Washington
* Give every student a place to display work in the classroom. This makes each child feel rooted. You might string a clothesline across the ceiling and hang students’ work.
– Loren James, Nishuane Elementary School, Montclair, New Jersey
* Let each student have a special day. The third Tuesday of each month can be Tommy’s Tuesday, when he is permitted to use the counting blocks for as long as he likes, or make up his own science experiment, or retreat to the reading loft all afternoon.
– Nancy Harrington, St. James School, Montclair, New Jersey
Antoinette Martin is a free-lance writer who has published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and numerous national magazines.
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