2007-09-28 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Class Size Matters - A Lot: Part 1
By Vivian Rattay Carter

The school quality survey results are in, and already the debates are raging over what the data means. Does class size matter? Does it matter more than other issues? Many have already joined in the discussion, from the Mayor and Chancellor to the Teachers' Union and the bloggers. Does class size matter?

Class size matters. It matters a lot. It matters at all levels of education, from pre-school through the doctoral level. It matters regardless of race or socioeconomic level. It really matters. I have grappled with the issue of class size, as a teacher, a parent, and recently, as a student in a master's degree program. Judging from my experience, the issue is very important to three of the major stakeholders in the educational process- parents, students and teachers. Just think about the importance of class size.

Almost all of us have been students at one time or another. Think back to your positive educational experiences, and I would be willing to bet that many occurred in small, supportive learning environments. From one-to-one schooling by a parent in the art of baking cookies, fishing, or carpentry, to small seminar classes at the secondary level laced with exciting discussions of current issues, most of us learn better in small groups. This is not to deny the skill of the distinguished speaker who can excite an entire lecture hall full of students (and I had the privilege to experience some throughout my education), but they are the uncommonly talented practitioners of the art of teaching.

As the parent of a child who was slow to develop as a reader, I was enormously grateful that my daughter's thirdgrade class had about 20 students, and her skilled teacher drew on best practices (as well as enormous patience) to see her blossom as a reader by the beginning of fourth-grade. Sadly, her fifth, sixth, and now seventh-grade classes have at least 28-30 students in them.

My son experienced the same thing throughout junior high and high school. Classes of 28-30 are so common in the well-regarded secondary schools that students who do not fit the mold for success in that environment are relegated, sadly, to failing schools, which often leads to drop-out status. Some children who do not do well in such large classes must opt for special education programs, a very costly option for the city's education system. This is an enormous disservice to many talented young people in this city.

After being involved with my own children's education, I decided to make a contribution by joining the NYC Teaching Fellows' program in 2004. For almost three years, I worked at a New Visions intermediate school in the Rockaways, where I taught math, science, social studies and English language arts to classes ranging from 22 to 30 students. I completed my master's degree in education at Brooklyn College during that same time, receiving almost daily guidance from professors, mentors and fellow teachers about class management techniques. What I found is that I could deal effectively with discipline issues, provided that there were no more than six students regularly devoting themselves to preventing the lesson from going forward, as planned by me. Any more than six, and the situation was not manageable. Is it surprising that when I reflect on those years, I most enjoyed teaching the class of 22, and dreaded the lessons with the class of 30? Class size matters. It matters a lot.

This is not to minimize the amazing skill of the truly experienced teacher who can work effectively with a class of any size. My daughter's sixth-grade teacher, a New York State Teacher of the Year, still awes me. She's been doing her job so well, for so long, that the person I looked up to most as a new teacher (our school's math coach) had been a student of this veteran teacher, going back to the 1970's. Unfortunately, a method to biologically clone such success has not yet been approved by the FDA!

I encourage the Mayor and Chancellor to look past the unstated labor-management issue that silently pervades this discussion, since "smaller classes" means more classes, which generally translates into "more teachers." There's a desperate teacher shortage in many places, so agreeing to a drastic class size reduction program in New York City seems akin to committing managerial hari-kari. It shouldn't matter. Parents do want smaller classes. Students want smaller classes.

Teachers know that smaller classes are better. Administrators need to get on board, too.

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