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October 23, 2012


The D.C. teacher has it right. In fact, just ask any teacher, in any school, whether a reduction in class size of 5 or 6 students would make a difference. The intensity of the support for smaller classes might surprise you. Teachers have very strong feelings about this because they see all the unmet needs of students in larger classes, which go way beyond the very limited aspects of learning that standardized tests can measure.

The class size debate never seems to end. This is not surprising since the research says one thing, parents intuitively believe a second thing, and teachers know from their experience that fewer students makes it possible for them to connect more personally with each of them students. What any of this suggests for policy, though is still problematic.

I would suggest that part of the reason educators get bogged down in this discussion is that we are still entrenched in a system that is essentially, despite rhetoric to the contrary, a one size fits all structure. We pay lip service to individual instruction, but it isn't really. It reminds me of people who claim that they can multi-task–they can't, they simply no longer notice how rapidly they switch from one task to another. In the same way, teachers can group students dynamically to increase personal interaction, but time is zero sum concept. You can't, without one of those time gizmos that Hermione used in that one Harry Potter novel, be in two places at once. The time you spend individually or with small groups requires a trade off with the rest of the students working, or not, outside the teacher's attention.

We need to learn to be more flexible, because not every student is the same, and not every class or kind of class needs identical staffing. Lots of students can succeed in a larger class. Where students need more individual attention, we ought to structure our schools and staff accordingly. Perhaps a larger class supplemented with instructional aides would suit particular situations. Why not differentiate based on the experience and skills of the teacher, putting several novice level teachers to work under the supervision of a master teacher?

We need to think outside the box, identify students' needs, and staff accordingly.


I have 28 students in my regular 3rd grade class. I am by myself. It's a pretty impoverished school with about 80 percent poverty. 4 kids read at grade level. 16 are one year or so behind and the rest are two or more years behind. It is quite hard to individualize anything. I try my best in small groups but having 5 or 6 groups going on at once is quite daunting. One tends to be constantly "managing" the behaviors of the other groups regardless of how "engaging" the activities are. It is possible to give some "one on one" attention but it definitely is not as frequent as one would hope. Anyways, I started asking parents if I could keep some kids after for some extra help. I have a group of 8 kids a few times a week and WOW, it reminded me of why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. I can really home in on their needs and the gains have been quite significant in a relatively short period of time. It gives me the ability to find their weaknesses quickly and really adapt my instruction to meet their needs. Now, I know a class size of 8 isn't possible, but it did remind me how important class size is.

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