The Numbers Game: Why Class Size Mandates Miss the Point

In an effort to stem the tide of falling public school test scores, states and school districts across the country have spent millions to fund costly mandates that dictate the maximum number of students per classroom. In some cases, such as in Florida, these mandates have been dictated by nothing short of a constitutional amendment. This has led to the broad acceptance of specific student/teacher ratios—typically around 20:1—as some magical formula, like the Golden Mean.

Critics of these mandated ratios often point out that there is little evidence that smaller class sizes work. The most recent, a new study by Matthew M. Chingos, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), found that Florida’s mandated class size reductions had no discernible impact on student achievement.

The problem with class size mandates is not whether the mandated class sizes should be 20 or 24 or some other magic number.  The problem is that class size mandates end up determining the amount of total dollars that are going to education and result in assigning just enough teachers to hit those ratios. This creates an inflexible structure where we inadvertently institutionalize a broken way of grouping teachers and students into one-teacher classrooms. We isolate teachers, inhibit collaboration and prevent students from receiving the individual attention they need.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Consider what happens—or doesn’t happen—in the one-teacher classroom world we have created:

  • Teachers rarely have opportunities to pair up and teach with each other.
  • Observing another teacher’s classroom is limited to an annual “professional development” event for new or struggling teachers.
  • Little time is available to plan lessons during the school day. The best teachers plan their lessons on evenings and weekends; the worst teachers don’t do much planning at all.
  • Once a lesson is planned, it is recycled year after year. It is rarely critiqued by peers or polished.
  • Students who need more time or attention rarely get it. The structure of one teacher per 20-30 students is simply not conducive to individual attention.  Small group sizes are systematically available only in special education. The most common way for a student to receive additional time in a subject is to fail a course and retake it.

The fact is, class size mandates miss an essential point:  The critical success factor is not how many students are in a classroom at a given time, it’s how many teachers are in the classroom, given the specific educational need at that moment. And those needs ebb and flow throughout the school day.

Yet many people—including many education professionals—are so rigidly indoctrinated in the idea of the one-teacher classroom that we can hardly conceive of something different, something potentially better.  What would that alternative look like?

Imagine a school with no maximum class sizes whatsoever.  Let’s call it No Max School. No Max School breaks a lot of rules and does a lot of things that are considered difficult or even undesirable in a one-teacher classroom world. For example:

  • Students are organized into grade-level teams of the largest size feasible.
  • Student desk work lasting longer than 10 minutes is supervised by a Teaching Assistant (TA)—not a teacher—and in the largest workable grouping of students.
  • A TA proctors all tests and sits with students whenever they write an in-class essay; All lectures or explanations lasting more than 15 minutes are given only in the largest group size manageable.
  • No Max School has extensive computer and foreign language labs with the best available software where all students spend a portion of each day learning with no teachers whatsoever.
  • Every week, there are school-wide town meetings, field trips or performances lasting several hours; teachers are excused from attending these activities.

So what are teachers doing at No Max School? They are providing individualized instruction in small groups (three to eight students) ranging daily and weekly, in short (10 minute) bursts and in regular longer sessions, depending on the material or the task and each student’s individual need.

Teams of four to six teachers continually collaborate, plan extensively, learn from each other, and hone their practice. Lectures and explanations and exercises and essays are vetted and polished, then critiqued by peers and improved some more.  Student work is graded right after it is finished.

Students who don’t master a concept are re-taught immediately. Students are grouped and regrouped fluidly to give them as much time as they need to master the most important daily and weekly material. All teachers understand the purpose behind every lesson and the standards tied to the lesson. They work together to ensure no student is left behind.

If you start with the assumption that some things are more easily learned in small groups than in large groups, then it becomes clear that organizing students into classrooms with one teacher all day long results in significantly reduced student learning compared to just about any other way of grouping teachers with students. Add to that the enormous benefits that accrue when teachers effectively collaborate with and learn from each other and the advantages of No Max School become apparent.

Given today’s ambitious learning goals, trying to reduce the complexity of teaching to a simple, daylong ratio just doesn’t work. Moving beyond the static, one-teacher classroom model offers the flexibility needed to help all of our students learn and grow. And isn’t that the point?

Stephen Frank, Director at Education Resource Strategies (ERS), leads ERS research on district resource allocation and ERS strategic school design consulting practice. He is the coauthor with Karen Miles of The Strategic School and is currently working on the sequel regarding strategic school systems.

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