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Sizing Up New Class Methods

Smaller Classes Might Encourage Teachers to Refine Their Style

October 01, 2000|CHRISTINE BARON | Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at educ@latimes.com or (714) 966-4550

As California school districts anticipate a significant increase in state money coming their way, there's obviously a lot of interest in how it will be spent. Naturally, secondary teachers would love to see some of that revenue finally go toward reducing their class sizes.

When I look out over the sea of 38 faces in my Senior Advanced Placement English class, I can't help dreaming of some relief. After all, it has already happened at the primary level, so why not junior high and high school as well? Despite all the reasons this would make sense, there are factors operating against any significant reductions.

Lowering the number of students in a large high school district like mine, for example, is frightfully expensive. A district spokesperson recently told my faculty colleagues that it would cost close to $1 million to lower class size by just one student; thus, moving from 35 students per class to 30 would come to a whopping $5 million. And because it is so costly, the educational establishment wants to ensure that it's getting maximum bang for its buck in terms of increased student achievement. Hence the need to conduct studies to determine if such reductions are truly effective.

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Contrary to what we might naturally expect, there is a body of research that says lowering class size does not necessarily increase student achievement. The evidence in favor is often described as "inconclusive" or "statistically insignificant." Kids learn just as well in a big class as in a small class. Why then do I and my colleagues continue to argue so passionately for reducing class size?

First of all, let's consider some reasons why reducing class size may not always show promising results. Some class-size reduction experiments simply do not reduce class size enough to make much of a difference. If a teacher drops from 35 students per class to 30 but still sees 150 students per day, the gains are going to be minimal. Yes, it will be less crowded and less chaotic (which is still worthwhile), but test scores will probably not rise dramatically.

Second, dropping class sizes does not guarantee that teachers will change the way they teach. After 10 or 15 years of huge classes, many teachers have developed survival techniques that are now ingrained: very little essay writing or class discussion, a reliance on objective tests, and limited personal contact with students. Rather than a major change in teaching style, a teacher's first reaction to reasonable class sizes might be a sigh of relief. It takes time to adjust to these smaller numbers and the new strategies that now can be considered.

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So after that sigh of relief, I ask myself what I would do differently to take advantage of lower class sizes and be a better teacher.

Above all, my students would write more and get more feedback on that writing. Right now, I have 180 students, exactly what my contract will allow. My biggest class has 38 students, my smallest 33. Every class writes something every week, but seldom enough to ensure any sort of real mastery. When I do assign writing, I make comments and give grades. This takes days to do well and thus the papers aren't returned in what I consider a timely fashion. Despite trying to space out my assignments, I am never caught up. And I still don't assign enough writing.

With smaller numbers, my students would also speak up more! An inevitable casualty of large numbers is class participation and the frequent chance this provides me to see whether students really understand the material. I'd love to call on all my students every day, not just the hand raisers. Currently, if every student has the opportunity to speak out in class twice a week, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Twice a week! A fundamental aspect of English should be oral expression, but it's not happening. There are students out there who go through entire days at school and never say one word in class or have one interaction with a teacher. They are simply lost in a sea of faces every period. There is no way this would happen with 25 students at a time, as opposed to nearly 40.

True, my students make progress every year, but I know it's not nearly as much as they could. With honors students, I suppose some of these issues aren't as critical; they tend to do well despite the inadequacies of the system. But with non-honors students, especially those who have fallen behind, the lack of individual attention is telling. They should be speaking daily and writing every week. It's not an unreasonable expectation for a high school English class, and if I had a lot fewer students I could actually pull if off.

Finally, I know in my heart that I would "be there" for more students if there were not so many to "be there" for.

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