2007-10-05 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Class Size Matters - A Lot: Part 2- Smaller Classes Are Desperately Needed to Close the Achievement Gap
By Vivian Rattay Carter

As I stated earlier, class size matters, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. With the education debate in New York City focused almost exclusively on the question of closing the achievement gap for minority students, does class size matter much to poor, minority students? In my mind, there is no doubt that it matters a lot.

Many of the students I worked with from 2004-2006 lived in the housing projects of Far Rockaway, and their parents often worked multiple jobs. School for these students is not just a place to go and sit in a classroom. The main event is what goes on in the lunchroom and in the hallways during class changes, when they can bond with their friends, be seen by other students, and establish a social identity.

I would not be the first to notice that, for all of us, school at some point in life satisfies our need to belong to a group. Again, think back to that favorite activity or learning experience you most enjoyed throughout life. For many of us, it was a group that had an identity (perhaps a name, a cheer, or a mission statement, explicit or implicit).

Sadly, many students who drop out of high school or see themselves as failures in the classroom turn to gangs. In gangs, they achieve a sense of belonging and perversely, pride in the group. Competing against the status that gangs can offer, urban teachers and school administrators must employ creative strategies to encourage their students to value learning and education, and to take pride in their achievements in the classroom. This type of effort to change attitudes is never required in traditional, middle-class schools.

Even the top-achieving students in my classes were cautious not to appear too aligned with the teacher and the school, for fear of being considered "uncool." The standard positive reinforcements used in schools, like awards and other scholastic recognition, often backfire in these environments.

One boy in my class made an enormous amount of academic progress, as his mother and I closely cooperated to help him improve his work habits over a period of months. When I rewarded him with Student of the Month, within days there were troubling incidents involving the other boys in the class, who cruelly tagged him a "suck up" and drew him into several disciplinary incidents in short order. I felt sad, but I understood how conflicted this boy was. He was pressured to prove his loyalty to fellow students by misbehaving as the price of success. Later, when I looked back at a photo taken at a class party, I saw him standing next to the proverbial "tough guy" in the class. Instead of just smiling for the camera, they were making hand signals to show their "attitude."

Even in a New Visions school, which is supposed to be a small learning community, the economics are such that classes are still large, and adult guidance is too sparing. Believe me, a teacher with 25-30 students has a very full plate--to plan lessons, teach, manage the paperwork, and communicate with parents for so many students. Interactions with guidance staff, conduct reports, and other efforts to help very troubled students can become almost too much, particularly for newer teachers just trying to learn their craft.

Creativity and caring are needed to transform these environments into small learning communities that truly engage, involve and reach students. The most successful students latch onto an activity, whether it is the lacrosse team or the chorus, and this satisfies their need to belong and connect to their school.

The better-managed (or funded) middle schools have separate guidance and mentoring staff assigned to each grade level. After-school classes are being used for small advisory groups at others, and this is also a good start. Beach Channel High School has had success with small learning communities, as well. It reminds me of a model of education used at many of the best universities around the country- the residential college. The community should be an integral part of a student's education, providing academic or emotional support and guidance where needed, throughout his or her career.

Our schools need major changes in order to facilitate many more "small learning communities." In the meantime, additional counseling is critical.

In February 2005, at a conference for staff at New Visions schools, I implored Chancellor Klein to add more guidance staff and deans for our schools, to help teachers and administrators deal with the enormous emotional baggage many students seem to bring with them to school. Our school did add an additional guidance counselor in 2006, but as soon as this occurred, the more senior counselor began to handle college advisement almost exclusively, so it seemed to me that there was almost no improvement.

Teachers of large classes cannot be expected to do more than they are already doing. It doesn't matter how many professional development sessions schools conduct. You can't train a teacher to be all things to all people.

The mayor, chancellor (and why not include the UFT president and education reporters for the daily newspapers, as well) think they understand education.

Sure, they know plenty. But I would have more respect for their opinions and efforts if they volunteered to spend a week doing the job of a teacher in one of the truly challenging middle schools in the city. Let them write lessons plans, prepare report cards, call parents, deal with principals and deans on discipline, and do their bulletin boards.

Let's just see them try.

You would see smaller classes in short order.

You would then see school reform that makes sense.

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