Recently, I have been privy to a conversation about class size in which a person thought that classes with high enrollments were okay. The other person in the conversation was a teacher with a class of over 30 and her retort was: “Oh really!” In this article, I want to reflect upon my own experiences as a teacher and share a perspective from other teachers on the issue. First, a note on class size research, which arguably, is one of the most studied educational issues over the past 50 years. Rigorous and peer reviewed class size studies definitely support the thesis that positive student achievement patterns occur with lower class sizes. In the literature there are a number of poorly designed class size studies that purport to prove that class size is not an important factor with student learning. The poorly designed studies are the less sophisticated research designs which present a simple correlation between two variables, class size and cost per pupil, for example. A correlation study is a relationship and does not include important causal or input factors such as teacher experience and time spent or not spent by parents helping their child/children at home. Most importantly, poorly designed research studies do not include random samples as exemplified by the Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) which studied 11,500 students over a four year period. This randomized research study is considered a gold standard of class size research design studies and it concluded that smaller class sizes do, indeed, positively impact student achievement and in addition the smaller classes had a positive effect on student life outcomes in their later years. Truly, my time at the Boston College Center for Field Research and School Services as a doctoral fellow convinced me of the importance of rigorous school research designs.
But teachers, students and parents are not interested in research designs. The students in large classes care about their voice being heard and their questions being answered. The teachers in classes approaching or exceeding 30 are discouraged because they can’t answer all of the questions posed by their students in the less than an hour of class time. One of the most important skills that a student can learn during their school years is the ability to ask good questions. A study at Stanford University several years ago concluded that the program completion rate by doctoral students was low because students had not learned how to formulate good questions during their earlier school years. The doctoral dissertation requires good questioning ability. But the ability to ask good questions is not limited to doctoral students – it is a skill prized by business and government, because problem solving requires good questioning ability. Remember the game “Twenty Questions?” In classes of 30 the teacher is forced into a direct instruction modality with little individualized help for students. A mathematics teacher with large classes at the high school told me recently that he could not diagnose all the individual learning problems because there just wasn’t enough time to get around to the students who were having difficulty. At the middle school, teachers are troubled by the large class sizes because in a typical class of 30 there is an increasing number of students with special problems—students with special education needs, increasing number of attention deficit problems, increasing number of SPED referrals, increasing number of discipline problems and the increasing number of e-mails by parents that need a teacher response before beginning his/her lesson planning for the next day. A teacher told me recently, “I am depleted and discouraged at the end of the day.” A major casualty in the class size crisis is the average student whose voice is muted because he/she is reluctant to speak out within the direct instruction classroom. A teacher told me, “If classes were smaller, I could get to the average student—with a little help I could bring many of them into the same ballpark as their more gifted classmates.” Sadly, all students are going to feel the compounding effect of large class sizes—year after year many of the silent and reluctant students will drift.
Finally, my own personal experiences as a teacher/professor spans fifty-seven years. I have served in five school districts and taught every level: elementary, middle, and high school. I have taught both undergraduate and graduate programs at the college/university level. As a school administrator, I continued teaching as an adjunct professor at the college level. I still teach two classes, one group of young students in grades 4-8 in religious education and another group of men at the Shirley Correctional Institution. I know about class size. As an elementary teacher I had 30+ students and I know a number of my students were lost in the shuffle. I had one very gifted student in the sixth grade and the best I could do was loan him books from my personal library and after school, because he was a walker, I could probe his mind through questioning. At a Jesuit high school, I had 30+ students and because much of my instruction was direct teaching, classroom interaction was at a minimum. I was discouraged and sad after my day of teaching. I am still sad about it.
In conclusion, I hope the School Department can add the necessary teachers that will bring the class sizes down to reasonable levels. I know, firsthand, that the students will benefit both short and long term.
Dr. John Collins
Former Shrewsbury Superintendent