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One Class Size Does Not Fit All

June 05, 2013

For a counterpoint, check out "From Sophistry to Science: The Importance of Class Size"

Parents and teachers often suggest smaller class size as the solution to the problems that ail K-12 education, but as an 11-year veteran of Los Angeles Unified School District, I’ve seen teachers with classes of 12 fail to educate their students. Education reformers, thus, focus on getting an effective teacher in front of every student, and one way to accomplish this is to increase class size for effective teachers. But as an effective teacher in a Title 1, ELL school, I know there are problems with that model as well: I’ve seen my own effectiveness decrease with one year’s class of 36 vs. the previous year’s 24.

Sara Mosle, in a recent New York Times ‘Opinionator’ column, attempts to forge a compromise between these two ‘solutions’ by calling for experimentation. She suggests we “keep class sizes small for a limited population of at-risk students”—the sorts of students I teach--while creating experimental pilot programs for other students in order to test whether “more-students-for-more-pay classrooms” can be cost- and learning- effective.

 With smaller classes, teachers have the time and energy to develop a positive relationship to and individualize learning for each student. Given the realities of budget constraints, though, are there other ways to achieve these effects?

I believe in experimentation; I’m starting an alternative, entrepreneurship-themed 6-12 pilot school next year. But Ms. Mosle’s experiment is neither fair nor far-reaching enough.

As was pointed out repeatedly in the comments on her piece, Ms. Mosle, whose school has a student-teacher ratio of 9:1, must be well aware that all pre-college students, not just at-risk ones, need to have a meaningful connection with at least one teacher, something that cannot happen when one teacher is attempting to connect with a class of 35 or 45 or 55 students (let alone multiple classes of those sizes, as happens in secondary schools).

I am presently an upper elementary teacher. I was moved to start a middle-high school when I saw that many of my formerly high-performing students had become disengaged from schooling as they left the nurturing elementary world.

This disengagement is not limited to low-income students; for several months now, I’ve been presenting my pilot school model to widely diverse parents, and I hear the same story over and over again: ”My child doesn’t really connect with school.” My anecdotal evidence is confirmed by an OECD study from a decade ago: 15 year-olds are disaffected across the developed world, and 1 in 5 American students fall into the disaffection category. According to the study, “disaffected students are not principally those who have the lowest literacy levels: they are drawn from the full range of abilities. Students who feel the lowest sense of belonging at school have, on average, literacy skills somewhat above the norm.”

For students to feel engaged at school, they need to feel connected to their teachers, their peers, and learning. Parents and effective teachers covet small class size because it enables teachers to nurture these connections; with smaller classes, teachers have the time and energy to develop a positive relationship to and individualize learning for each student.

Given the realities of budget constraints, though, are there other ways to achieve these effects?

For the past few years I’ve been integrating online curriculum into my teaching, especially for math and grammar. This year my class of 34 (half 5th, half 4th) uses TenMarks’ online math curriculum that lets me assign any lesson from 1st through 10th grades to my students. I have 4th graders exploring graphing lines and curves and 5th graders relearning single-digit long division. The online curriculum enables me to meet the needs of my students where they each individually are, and they become more engaged with the material because they control its pace and delivery (written hints, videos, trying on their own). 

Because homework and some concept learning is done online, I have more time to work with small groups and create interesting real world mathematical explorations. For example, my students are currently engaged in a service learning project where, working in groups, they create handwritten and SurveyMonkey surveys to gather school-wide data on issues like bullying, cursing, and littering; they then tabulate and analyze the data; create charts and present it in report form; and finally design and implement specific, data-driven solutions to the problems they’re addressing.

These sorts of problem-based or project-based activities serve to connect students with each other, with learning, with school, and of course with me, their teacher.

So I propose a different experiment concerning class size: design different schedule configurations that use large-scale individualized blended learning and flexible small grouping during the course of a school day or week-- so that all students, not just presently at-risk ones, can build a stronger connection to school. There are already schools and districts pioneering these sorts of new groupings and schedules and even architectures that no longer organize school on the outdated concepts of class size and register-carrying teacher and fixed student-teacher ratios and individual classrooms. We need more such experiments and more such technology.

This way all students get the best of both worlds: one-on-one teaching and practice via technology (which students, like adults, love) and small group interaction with a live, caring, and (ideally) effective teacher for discussion, remediation, enrichment, and exploration.

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