Right now school is starting up again all around the country, which basically means that teachers everywhere just bought out all the poster putty in Staples. This happened at approximately the same time we were handed our class rosters.
And you know what I do every year when I see those rosters? A double-take. And every year said double-take gets more and more dramatic. (This year I actually think I included a full-on eye roll.) Because every year, something about those lists gets crazier and crazier: the number of names on them.
These days, there is no shortage of educational debates miring the country. Debates over Common Core, No Child Left Behind, standardized testing…the list goes on. Yet there’s one debate that seems to fly under the radar of all the others, and it should be at the forefront of these discussions: the debate over class size.
For years educational gurus have discussed the efficacy of making classes smaller. Does it impact student achievement? Does it outweigh the costs? And while this debate has raged, so have class sizes. I started teaching over a decade ago, when 27 students constituted a large class. Now, in 2015, a class of 27 can feel like teacher mecca.
I work in an urban middle school in Denver. Our class sizes range as high as 33 and 34—some classes have climbed closer to 40 at times. For us, it’s obvious why reduced class sizes matter. Teachers can spend more time individually supporting students. Students get a more focused learning experience. A myriad of studies back the argument that reduced class sizes make students more successful, particularly minority and low-income students.
Still, there are plenty of people claiming that class size isn’t important. Proponents of the blended learning model suggest that bringing more computers into the classroom will effectively solve the problem. There's a movement of people arguing that we should lift class size requirements and pay stronger teachers more to take on larger classes.
Look, I’m all for bringing more technology into classrooms, and I’m certainly not going to argue against paying teachers more. But the class size debate shouldn’t just be about student achievement. It should be about how large class sizes are part of what's preventing equality in this country. Here’s why.
This past year I attended a conference where Cornelius Minor, a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, brought up something interesting: the difference between schools that encourage compliance and schools that encourage freedom, creativity, and choice. Minor referenced the 1991 article “The Pedagogy of Poverty,” a piece that once alerted the country to an alarming trend: high-poverty and urban schools are much more likely to encourage pure compliance rather than independent thought. Minor reminded us that these schools are far less likely to produce students who rise through social classes, because they become employees, not employers.
Later, sitting in a coffee shop and discussing the pedagogy of poverty with a colleague, I realized something: the pedagogy of poverty is directly related to the class size debate.
I’ve spent years working in and with multiple different schools that place a high emphasis on compliance. These schools don’t employ such methods because they want to create a generation of kids who can’t think. These schools encourage compliance because when you're teaching crowds of kids this big, compliance can become a must-have. If you don't have some kind of basic compliance in a class of 32 or 33, no learning is going to happen. For anyone. And you know what? The larger your class gets, the harder it is to manage.
Look at the best private schools in America today, where students often learn in classrooms of fifteen, twenty—often fewer. Administrators at these schools would never dream of telling parents that class size doesn’t matter, because they know it does. These schools encourage creativity and independent thought with reckless abandon; classrooms are much easier to manage when they only have fifteen kids in them. Rather than focusing on compliance and punitive consequences, teachers are able to focus on building real relationships with students and empowering those students to think for themselves.
Sure, there are other factors at play here. Class size isn’t the only thing that makes classroom management in certain schools difficult. But the bottom line is this: the bigger class sizes get in impoverished schools, the less likely those schools are to employ academic and behavioral systems that foster students’ creativity and independence. The more likely those schools are to produce employees rather than employers.
And the other bottom line is this: as I mentioned earlier, studies have shown that the students who need smaller class sizes the most are actually students growing up in highest-poverty situations. In my own classrooms, I've got an enormous percentage of students reading below grade level. All I want in the world is to be able to meet with each of them on a regular basis, coach them on their reading, and give them the individual attention they generally deserve to improve their reading quickly. But with classes this size? We'll be lucky if I get to meet with everyone once every two weeks.
We can keep arguing about whether or not class size affects student achievement, but that’s not the discussion we should be having. We should be talking about how large class sizes are part of what’s keeping our highest-poverty students from gaining power in society. We should be talking about how large class sizes are inadvertently propping up institutionalized racism and classism in this country.
It’s time to have the conversation about why large class sizes are not just an annoyance to teachers—they're an enormous part of a larger social injustice this country needs to face.
And this is not a conversation we can afford to keep ignoring.