Politicians say that class size doesn't matter. They say that the class size data shows that what the teacher does is more important than the number of students in your room. Any teacher can tell you that this isn't true. Here is my true life story about why and how class size matters in students' success.
This year has been challenging me. I feel tired faster. I'm having a harder time keeping up with planning and grading. I'm not using as many differentiated instructional strategies as I usually do. It's taking me longer to cover certain topics and there are so many "extras" we haven't done yet that I normally have introduced by this time of the year.
I couldn't figure out why I was having a harder time until my husband made a comment the other day. He said "You're trying to do everything you did for a class of 16, but now you have 24." This was a great "aha!" moment for me. He's absolutely right. Last year I was able to do a lot with my students and a lot more for my students because there were less of them. Eight kids may not seem like much of a class size reduction, but when you're trying to differentiate for the specific needs of your students, fitting eight more students into small groups and one-on-one conferences can really throw you off, even if some of them receive special services with other teachers.
Last year I taught at a charter school in a different part of town. There were less "extra" services available to me in the way of specialists and support teachers. However, my class sizes were kept drastically smaller. This year I have moved to a "regular public school" to be closer to home. I'm not knocking the school at all. The teachers I work with are fabulous and administration is very helpful. We have quite a few specialists and support teachers. However, because of our budget, the class sizes are bigger. I have 24 kids in my class. 24 kids with different levels, different needs and different backgrounds. I've had quite a few people tell me I have a "small class". I guess when the some classes have 27 - 30 kids, that's true. It's all about perspective, isn't it? But of course my previous experience has given me a different perspective too. And it's this perspective that got me thinking:
What do we give up in order to teach a larger class? Or more specifically, what do the students give up?
With a larger class size, I have less time for one-on-one conferences. I have less time for small group reading and small group math. Of course this means that as a teacher, I often prioritize those with the greatest needs. This means that if a student has greater abilities, they don't get as much of my attention. Additionally, these higher achieving students are also used as peer tutors and asked to help other students out, often taking on an almost grown up role. When I had a smaller class, I worked on novel studies with these higher achieving students and I didn't rely on them as much as peer tutors. They got a much more equal share of my attention.
In larger classrooms, higher achieving students receive less of a push. They spend more time helping other students and less time exploring their own interests. Lower achieving students receive less individualized instruction. They spend more time being helped by students and less time being helped by a teacher. Overall, we tend to "teach to the middle" more in larger classrooms and this really doesn't do the needs of our students justice..
Calmer, more peaceful classrooms:
Students who have behavior problems often behave worse in larger classrooms because they can't have the attention they need when they are just beginning to be distracted. This causes bigger behaviors than you would see in a classroom with less students because it's harder to "nip it in the bud".
There are also more students in the classroom, meaning that there are more chances of one of those students providing a student with a history of misbehavior with a trigger or distraction for their behavior. Students who have focus problems receive less help in staying focused. Instead of having one child who might need some light reminders, I have multiple students with checklists on their desks. Because of this, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Students who can skate by without making a fuss often get very little help because we spend so much time dealing with the student who is turning our classroom upside down. Additionally, in classrooms with a big class size, we spend more time "managing" behaviors and less them teaching which leads to louder, less peaceful classrooms and can often spiral into additional behaviors.
Interest Based Learning:
In addition to less time for differentation to meet the needs of our students, we have less time for differentiation to meet the interests of our students. Even though studies show that students learn more when they can connect their own interests and background knowledge to the curriculum, most students do not get a chance to see their own interests mirrored in the curriculum.
When we have small class sizes, we get to know our students and their interests and we make connections for them. The more kids in the class means the more interests to connect to and generally the less connections that are made. Unless a students is extremely vocal about a certain interest, we as teachers may not even know to make a connection. However, in a small class, there was time for conversations. These conversations clued me in to my students interests and this knowledge helped me to build connections for students with the books we were reading. I was able to buy books that were of interest to students and findz other ways to allow students to see their own interests in the curriculum.
Access to Technology and Learning Tools:
I have the same amount of technology in my room this year as last year, but we get less use of it. Why? Because now there are 24 students vying for those 4 devices instead of 16. In order to rotate students through, we would need 6 rotations instead of 4. This means that technology tends to be available for those early finishers or to help struggling students better access the curriculum. This means that technology is not something everyone touches every day. The same is true for any other centers or learning activities. Unless you have a one to one setup for technology or other resources, students will spend a lot more time waiting for the technology than using the technology when you have more students in the classroom.
Our students need us not just as teachers, but as mentors. They need to know they can come to us with a problem and feel like we're listening. They need to know that we care. When we are tired from managing behaviors, we are less engaged with our students and we are less likely to listen to their problems. More students means that teachers are more tired and less engaged. There are also more problems, and a wider range of problems, for teachers to listen to. This means that in larger classes, we often lose that personal connection that allows students to know that we care for them. This personal connection can make a world of difference to our students and we should have the time and energy to give that connection to our students!
Now I'm going to have some teachers read this post and say "I've taught a class of 30 for years and I differentiate and give individual attention!" And they won't be lying. Teachers are an amazing group. We do the impossible because we strive to treat a class of 30 in the same way that we would treat a class of 10. I know that I still try each and every day to give each and every child my undivided attention. We differentiate and we find ways to make miracles happen. But I've also taught a class of 10 and know that the attention and differentiation I give my current class of 24 is not the same as I was able to give my class of 10.
Of course as teachers we have little control over the number of students they place in our classroom. Often the numbers go up for reasons that are out of even our administrators' controls: shifts in school district lines, emergencies that cause people to move from one area to another (I got an extra 6 kids during the aftermath of Huricane Katrina.), or budget cuts happen. Teachers "make it work" because that's our job. That doesn't mean we don't go home exhausted because of our effort and it doesn't mean that just because we "can" teach a class of 30 that we "should" teach a class of 30.
In my perfect world we would look at what students are losing in these larger class sizes and prioritize our students' learning over whatever fancy new tool the military is getting or what great tax cut is going to bring a new millionaire business into our state. In fact, in my perfect world I would put less kids per classroom and take the money to afford it from the billions we spend on standardized testing and curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. But alas I don't run the world, so for now, I will just make my point that size does matter, especially if it's class size!
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