25 May 2011

Why Increasing Class Size ISN'T a Reasonable Solution

We were caught off guard when we heard the news about our county's elementary schools: 15 teaching positions gone.  That's anywhere from 300 to 375 students that will be crammed into remaining teachers' classrooms this fall, bringing class size up to a maximum of 35 children.  Currently under Georgia law, grades K-3 max out at 23 children per room.  Grades 4-8 can have no more than 28.  These numbers are an increase from just a couple of years ago in order to rectify budgetary issues seen across the state.  Have we actually seen a change in the legal maximum since?  Absolutely not.  It is difficult to see how cutting positions is justifiable when the law on class size has not budged.

Is this another editorial written by a teacher just to gripe about all the injustices of education?  There are always reasons to whine and moan about your career, but I'm not writing this to spout off like a hot geyser.  When your career involves shaping today's children into tomorrow's model citizens, someone needs to speak the truth…and with a megaphone in her hand.  Parents, you deserve to know why increasing class size is not the answer.  It will have an effect on your child's learning experience and overall well-being.

So let's take the time to examine both sides of the educational coin: the parent/student side and the educator side.  Parents and students, these reasons are for you.

  1. Some of you are thinking, "I had 30 in my class when I was a kid.  What's 5 more?"  Comparing yesteryear's kids to today's is akin to comparing apples to Chinese star fruit.  With every generation of students comes a new set of challenges, issues, and baggage that teachers must learn and then accommodate.  Adding 5 students to a roster back in the 80's or 90's may have not been as big of a deal.  The economy was stronger, divorce rate was low, and people yearned for a great education.  Adding 5 students today is completely different.  It is our job to serve any student who comes through our doors, no matter if they: are below grade level, are learning English as their second language, have any documented learning or physical disabilities, are transient due to a guardian always moving, have incarcerated parents/family members, have a chronic illness, have never been in a public school before, or don't have a home.  You even have students who show up quoting their parents: "I'm only here because the government says I do.  Mama said I don't have to learn anything."  With the increase of issues outside of school comes an increase of classroom quandaries.  Your child may come to class clean and fed with homework in hand each and every morning, knowing he's going home to two loving, supportive parents.  But if the teacher is having to spend time on managing issues concerning bullying or constant disrespectful behavior that can stem from any of the aforementioned issues, that means there is less time spent on instruction and modeling of vital educational lessons.
  2. You didn't get a say when your school system was determining class size.  This is decided by either your state's board of education or your local school system's board.  If you want your system to know how you feel, you have feet and a voice.  Take yourself to the board of education meetings and stand up for your child's learning environment.  Board members still have the power to vote, but at least they are empowered with the knowledge and experiences you have shared with them.
  3. If you believe your child doesn't get enough one-on-one time with his/her teacher, just wait until the numbers jump.  This is most certainly the case in homes with multiple children who have differing needs.  A child with a learning disability will receive more homework help from the parent than the one who aces every spelling test.  In the classroom, the students who get the most face time with the teacher are the ones who need the most attention.  Just like a parent, a teacher is only one person.
  4. Your child's teacher has a life outside the school walls.  I used to believe that teachers slept at school, never ate at fast food restaurants, and didn't know how to do anything beyond grade papers and make bulletin boards.  Wow, was I ever wrong.  We have the same responsibilities you do outside of work, like paying off debt and going for yearly check-ups.  We get paid for a 40-hour work week, but in actuality, we spend an extra 20-30 hours per week outside the classroom on planning, grading, and researching, all for the sake of enriching children that are not our own flesh and blood.  That doesn't even include the time we commit to tutoring or mentoring.  Usually, those hours are unpaid, too.  Just like you, we want to have movie night at home with our families or enjoy a day at the park walking the dog, and then be able to meet all of our needs with limited interruption from our careers.
  5. Increasing class size adds to our workload, thus leading to possible decreases in motivation, alertness, and attention to detail while instructing your children.  Why else do you think they limit the number of hours a pilot can fly or a doctor attends to his patients?
  6. More children + more furlough days = less instructional time.  It's simple math, folks.  Your child is deserving of a quality education.  Stuffing students into classrooms like sardines and then taking away several days of instruction is highway robbery.  Every business has to cut corners to meet budgetary demands, so they might trim how many cases of paper they order or how many overtime hours an employee is permitted to work each week.  It should bother you that the real cost in the case of inflating school populations on a shrinking calendar is valuable learning time.

Teachers, here are a few that might get you thinking.

  1. Other school systems are penalized for failing to comply with class size maximums.  In Broward County, Florida last year*, simply having one more student in a particular class than legally permitted would have cost them millions.  Their school system looked to find ways to avoid paying these penalties, such as asking for extra classroom funding or asking teachers to take on extra periods of instruction.  When I taught in Clarke County, Georgia, getting one more student than legally allowed was grounds for hiring a new teacher.  In fact, in the middle of one of our school years, we had to hire a third grade teacher immediately following Christmas break because we had a sudden influx of third graders.  During the days leading up to her hire, the existing teachers literally ran out of desks and chairs as the students kept being added to their roles.  It left a handful of new children to sit in the floor during instructional time.  Their disdain for being without the standard student furniture was obvious.
  2. You didn't get a say in determining class size, either.  You're the one in the trenches with your students each and every day.  You know better than anyone what a manageable number of students is and what number is simply too much.  When was the last time someone from the board came by your classroom and asked your opinion on class size?  I think we would all be shocked if board member came through our doors and tried to walk a mile in our shoes just to see what it is like to balance everything expected of us as educators.  The parents are probably wondering why I don't encourage teachers to voice their opinions at board meetings.  Teachers have to choose their words and ways of expressing themselves with extreme caution.  School systems have firing rights, and they can't fire a parent for speaking with candor or vigor.
  3. Test scores.  Is there really a need for me to explain this one any further?
  4. You felt called or led to teach, but the system is leaving you feeling jaded.  They say if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.  But is it love when year after year the school systems restrict your resources, add more furlough days, allow certain parents and/or students privileges that you have been denied, and chide you for teaching anything beyond the curriculum?  And yet with these cut-backs in materials and your paycheck, they want to add more children to your room?  What politicians, board members, and bureaucrats fail to see is that they are going to run off highly-qualified, well-eduated teachers like you whose hearts are truly in their work and who produce well-rounded students who will one day be contributing members of society.  What will they do when the only ones left willing to teach are a bunch of "yes men" who just want to ride out a low paycheck for 30 years?  With the way the systems are changing, it may get very ugly before there is real progress and positive change for everyone, including the educators.

It may be impossible to please everyone on the spectrum, especially since we are talking about government-funded education.  Parents want the best for their children's education without fear that the system will suddenly turn its back on student needs.  Educators want to provide a quality service to their students without fear of the system bullying them into more work for less pay.  Together, teachers and parents won't solve the increasing class size problem in one fell swoop.  It will take take time and combining their efforts with the following goal in mind could help alleviate the stress and strain on all parties until there is much-needed relief: "It's all about the children."

1 comment:

A. Hab. said...

I would like to offer one perspective (entirely biased and skewed as it is) from the university side of this issue, because believe me--we're watching it, too.

When I first started teaching at Auburn, I felt led to it. I was confident that I had answered the right call. It felt right. And then I met my students. A few of them (really only three or four per classroom) were incredible students. They were bright, engaged, alert, prepared. A teacher's dream. Most of the rest of them (between 20 and 25, depending on the maximum class size) hate that they're taking composition or a survey-level literature class. They are combative, irresponsible, and extremely difficult to teach. I have a theory that these students in particular are products of the environment in which they were "raised."

I am not in any way blaming the teachers or even the parents. It's not fair or reasonable to say that the students were not properly taught or brought-up before I got my hands on them. However. I do believe that the danger we risk in eliminating teacher-student interactions (through increased class sizes or furloughing teachers) is leading students to believe that education is not a priority. It's not a priority to our country. It's not a priority to our government. It's not a priority to our parents or educators (their helplessness and inability to act, I fear, could be misinterpreted to mean lack of concern). Why should our students, who get the message that their education doesn't matter, why should they care at all? Why shouldn't they challenge me with questions like, "Well, I'm a maths major, so why do I need composition? Or literature?"

I worry that in cases like this one, we're not only risking the way a classroom is managed or how easy it is on teachers to grade a certain amount of homework or administer so many tests. Rather, I agree with you, that we're really sacrificing the kind of people these students grow up to be.

I fall in the fourth category of teachers. I am jaded. Burned out. Exhausted. And I haven't been in the trenches like other university instructors or professors. I'm "just" a GTA. But I've been observing these trends since 2004, and I don't like what I'm seeing. Teaching is absolutely my calling. But I'm not sure I'll end up answering that call if the system isn't massively changed.


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