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Class Size Insanity

Mrs. Mimi's Chalk Talks

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Class Size InsanityTwo big news items about class size and “innovative” approaches to education have our very own Mrs. Mimi, of The Chalk Talks blog, sounding off about how administrators are missing the mark and setting students AND teachers up for failure.

Oversized Experiment in Class Size

When I saw an article about a 60-student kindergarten class in the paper this morning, I thought it was a joke, a tongue in cheek commentary on education innovation.  After I had another sip of my coffee, I realized this is no joke... some “innovative” administrator thought it was a great idea to stick 60 small children in one classroom with four teachers.  

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Not only does the idea of 60 first graders running rampant in a 2,000 square foot classroom make me want to poke myself in the eye, it kind of makes me angry. 


Why am I angry? Because this "little experiment" is taking place in a low-income neighborhood with a high population of children with physical, emotional and learning issues.  These kids don’t need to risk a year or two in their learning.

Snapshots from the Class Size Experiment

The Logistics: Sixty students all work in one classroom with one veteran Master Teacher (making 6 figures) and 3 novice teachers. They work in groups and rotate every 40 minutes.

Six-year-old kindergartener Thea Burnett, who was quoted in the article, summed it up best when she said, "We don't know what we are supposed to be doing, but we are learning about math."  This little girl doesn't know what to do because her poor teacher is running around like a chicken with its head cut off just trying to keep order, much less do any actual instructing. 


Among the other horror stories from this over-filled classroom include:

  • *a student pulling a chair out from under his teacher

  • *a penny counting activity resulting in penny pictures, arguments over a lost quarter and anything but students learning to count

  • *chaos breaking out every 40 minutes when students “regroup” for different activities

  • *In the 1st grade classroom also engaged in the experiment, violent outbursts are more common.   "Eight weeks into the year, the only student work visible on the blue-painted walls was a poster with finger-painted hand prints and the words "Hands Are Not for Hitting." 

The school did show improvement midway through the year the NYC sums up as:

  • “Children appeared more focused during lessons. Jahmeer decided to play with pencils rather than do his counting work sheet, but he stayed in his seat, and another child asked if he needed help. One boy started crying, but not because someone pushed him; he wanted to have a turn writing his answer on the board.”

What is the Logic Behind This Insanity?

Their so-called improvements are downright frightening.  In the example of Jahmeer playing with pencils rather than do his work but miraculously staying in his seat: are we thinking hooray for small victories or I can’t believe it is January and this is what we're calling progress?


My question is: What is the logic behind this insanity?

Evidently, the administrator in charge, Mr. Waronker, says his "inspiration" was an elite boarding high school in New Hampshire where students work collaboratively in small classes. How did we get from an elite group of high school students working in small groups to a SIXTY primary grade children in a high poverty neighborhood running around all Lord of the Flies style? 

Mr. Waronker believes that this style of education values "student independence over teacher-led lessons, inquiry over memorization, freedom and self-expression."  But really, who knows if they are expressing themselves?  Who knows if they are active inquirers?  Who knows if some of them are in the bathroom?  How are teachers supposed to keep track of anything amidst this chaos?

And I know there are four teachers which yields a ratio of 15:1 which is smaller than almost every city classroom but (and it's a big BUT) I'm not sure this is even a valid argument when they are ALL IN THE SAME ROOM. 


Imagine if these teachers were actually allotted classes of 15 students. All the existing data on student performance predicts that they’d be doing better than a bigger class.


Teacher Collaboration

Another facet of this innovation, according to Mr. Waronker, is the idea is that teachers and students will collaborate.   He feels that having teachers' struggles out in the open allows their colleagues in the same room to offer advice.  (Pssssstttt....we do that anyway, even when we're NOT in the same room with a ba-jillion little people milling about.) 


In this environment, teachers wouldn’t have a spare second to take their eyes off the chaos that is happening in front of them. They’ll be even more strapped for time because they’ll have to recover all the lost time when the “transitions” in the classroom result their gigantic classroom turning into a circus.

I want to hug those teachers.  And those kids.  And then I want to build them some walls.

Class Size InsanityWhy Duncan Doesn’t Get It

In a recent ed forum, Secretary of Ed Duncan recommended increasing class sizes to overcome budget problems in school. Sec. Duncan (who has zero personal classroom experience) is suggesting that schools make some "hard choices" in these "difficult economic times." 


I guess he's just realizing that tax dollars don't grow on trees, and most schools under his watch don’t have money for enough supplies, books, tech or teachers. If this is his first moment realizing this, that’s a problem.

Basically, Duncan thinks that rather than cut art and music or other things that "directly impact the classroom," schools should opt to make "targeted increases" in class size.  He even said that he would be willing to send his hypothetical children to a class of 26 children if there was an excellent teacher in place. 


I have a few problems with this statement:

1.  Inaccurate Class Size Stats

My question for Mr. Duncan, Secretary of Education, is:  When was the last time you were actually IN a classroom?  Many schools ALREADY have class sizes of 25 and 26.  If you’re going to make the claim, at least have a fair estimate for how big these class sizes actually are and how big they could get.


In a classroom of 30 students, a teacher gets to spend less than 15 minutes with each child.

2.  The Impact of Class Size Impact in the Classroom

As demonstrated in the example above, class size has a TREMENDOUS impact on what goes on in the classroom.   I can't think of many other things that have a BIGGER impact on the classroom. 

3.  Larger Class Sizes Go Against Research

Duncan’s pitch since becoming secretary has been to focus on innovation and research-based decision making in schools. How then can he support ignoring massive amounts of data supporting small class size? That’s asking administrators to look at all available research and do the opposite.


The Dunks also goes on to say that school districts should rethink pay scales that give teachers additional pay for advanced degrees.  Instead, he suggests that the most effective teachers should be paid between $80,000 and $125,000 a year. 


Now, I totally agree that the Rock Stars of Education should be paid some serious Benjamins; HOWEVER, where is this imaginary money going to come from if we have to make "tough decisions" such as increasing class size because we are in tough economic times. Again, my friend, you are not making the sense.  But I guess when you are in charge, you don't have to.

Where do you stand on the class size debate? Share in the comments section!

Read Mrs. Mimi's original blog posts on the topic: Perhaps We've Confused "Innovation" With "Insanity" and Size Matters.

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