Heidi Crumrine: Why should we care about class size?

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/24/2019 12:14:54 AM

If there’s one word to describe a classroom in today’s world of education, it would be this: Busy. Gone are the days of desks in rows, a teacher in the front, students quietly all doing the same assignment.

If you were to visit my classroom, you would see something very different. You might find some students reading, some conferencing with me, some working collaboratively with each other and some working independently. You might see me reading out loud to the whole class, or you might find me sitting with a particularly challenging student and helping her stay on task and focused on her schoolwork.

Every day we will have a common goal in our work together, but the ways in which students work toward that goal will vary. Purposeful energy is a wonderful thing to witness in the classroom.

These changes in the way we run our classrooms are a good thing. We have learned much about how children learn best and have adjusted our instruction to better meet their needs. What it means to be a teacher has changed and a lot is expected of us, but as educators we are okay with that because we know it is worthwhile.

We want the education for the children in our classrooms to mean something, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Increasing class sizes at all grade levels, however, is preventing teachers from being able to do what we know is best in the classroom. If we expect our teachers to differentiate for varying learning styles, have high academic standards while also teaching social-emotional skills, work with students in small groups, nurture children who have suffered trauma, form relationships and connect with parents, then class size needs to be smaller.

Furthermore, today’s classrooms are increasingly inclusive, with different types of students who might have been separated decades ago. This is also a good thing, but it means we can’t help everyone to the best of our ability if we don’t have the time or space. If we know that we have significant populations of minority and at-risk students, in addition to students who struggle academically, then it means that our class sizes need to be manageable.

Speaking from my 20 years of experience as a teacher, any class with more than 25 students at the high school level is too big. The reality is that when I have a class of 30 students, I cannot give them as much feedback on their writing, I cannot meet with them for as long both in and out of class, and it takes longer to get through any in-class activity that requires each student to participate or present.

I can be as creative as possible about finding ways to work around the issue, but I cannot make the class period longer or add hours to the day. I am a human being and human beings have limits. I just can’t do it all.

I am not an elementary school teacher, but I can say from my experience as a parent that elementary classes should be even smaller. My daughter is in fifth grade in Concord and in a class with 25 other children. After her first day of school, the first thing she told me about her day was, “The class is so big.”

Fortunately, she has master teachers, does not struggle academically and is not a behavior problem. I don’t worry too much about her, but I do worry about others in her class for whom school does not come so easily. I worry about the student who might come to school looking for encouragement from an adult; I worry about the student who might need more support in his learning; I worry about the student who might hide behind the others and fall behind unnoticed; I worry about the student who might still be learning English; I worry about the student who might mean well but cannot physically sit still and needs attention.

There are so many students to worry about, but there are simply not enough moments in the school day for even the best teacher to be all things to all students in any class. There are certainly more possibilities when the class size is manageable.

Overall, studies on class size indicate that students who are in smaller classes outperform their peers in larger classes. They are one to two months ahead of peers in larger classes and they do better on standardized assessments. These benefits are more pronounced in the younger years and tend to fade as students get into middle and high school, however, students who are English language learners, receive special education services, are minorities or are at-risk continue to benefit from smaller class sizes through high school.

In addition to academic gains, studies indicate that students in smaller classes are more likely to interact with one another, display fewer disruptive behaviors, spend less time off-task and report having better relationships with their teachers. Perhaps most significantly, the benefits of smaller classes persist into adulthood: Students have increased earning potential, improved citizenship, decreased crime and welfare dependence, and are more likely to attend college. These benefits are even more profound for students of color and for students living in poverty.

Most importantly, however, smaller class sizes just make intuitive sense. If we want to have classrooms that are dynamic, student-centered and inclusive, then we need to remember that when we set policy, we directly affect the ability of the experts in the room, the teachers, to do what is best for the children in front of them.

There are many challenges that local school boards face in regard to budget and they have many tough choices to make. But class size shouldn’t be one of them. All students deserve to learn in the best possible environment that we can offer them.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)

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