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One Size Doesn’t Fit All

“Keep calm,” I tell myself. “It’s only kindergarten.” I’ve been repeating this newfound mantra from the minute I learned that our son’s kindergarten class, which originally listed 22 students on the roster, had swelled to 26. With one teacher and one part-time aide designated to load them up with all the learning that can be crammed into a half-day program.

This isn’t my first rodeo; my older son is in the fourth grade at the same school, but when he attended kindergarten he had fewer classmates. And, it seems, he attended at a time when kindergarten was still a school-readiness program not, as our younger boy’s teacher described it, “the new first grade.” (Translation: it’s designed to deliver a classroom full of proficient readers to first-grade classrooms.)

I’ve never been gifted in math, but I defy you to come up with an equation that makes sense of this: My younger son is now in a larger class than his brother was, but with more demands placed on both the students and the teachers.

That’s the macro view. My micro view, from my own family’s perspective, is how will my, er, highly active little boy fare in such a large group? His preschool class was 18 kids — with two teachers and two parents in the room each day. But now with one teacher and a part-time aide, I fear the worst: My child will miss out on key learning moments because the teacher is too busy engaging in “classroom management” (or, in bolder terms, crowd control) to actually teach. In a smaller setting, my son’s surplus of personality can be an asset; his enthusiasm for learning new things is contagious. In a larger class, however, it’s easy to see it as disruptive, even ringleader-type behavior. It wouldn’t take much for that enthusiasm to tip over into rambunctiousness. And, for heaven’s sake, he’s in a class full of five-year-olds — he can’t be the only child in the room with a bounty of energy and enthusiasm.

“I fear the worst: that my child will miss out on key learning moments because the teacher is too busy engaging in ‘classroom management.’”

All of this leaves me wondering: Have I missed something? Is there an argument for a larger class size? Or is it simply a matter of the bad math that plagues public education in every corner of this country — not enough funds for the services required; the mandate to do more with less? I did a little digging to check on what the research says about primary grade class sizes.

Experts agree that the “ideal” class size hovers somewhere under 20 students. The landmark research on this topic occurred in the mid-1980s in Tennessee, under the banner of the Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio). In the experiment, schools that served 57 or more kindergarten students in Tennessee placed at least 22 students in each of two classrooms, and then 13 kids in a third classroom. The results: The achievement gap between at-risk groups and those who were meeting achievement standards was reduced by a significant factor — and the effects were seen beyond the early grades. Over time, the students in the smaller classes were found to have better long-term success in reading and math — including completing more advance math, science and English courses — than the students who were in larger classes in K-3. Moreover, the students who had begun their school careers in smaller classes also had lower truancy rates and were more likely to graduate from high school on time, and with honors, than their larger-class counterparts. The findings were so compelling, other states, like Wisconsin and California, sought to replicate and expand the research.

Of course, the results found their critics, who pointed out that there are so many variables within districts and between districts, it’s hard to say that what works for one group will work for another. Still, several states adopted Class Size Reduction (CSR) programs across all grades, not just the earliest grades, and even federal monies have been directed to creating smaller classes. The results, however, have been mixed.

Naturally, class size has been a talking point in the current presidential campaign: Mitt Romney said that when he was governor of Massachusetts, he saw no correlation between class size and improved achievement. President Obama painted the issue with an equally broad brush, making remarks that leaned heavily on the importance of CSR. Interestingly, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, takes a more nuanced approach, noting that while it’s not an across-the-board fix, smaller class sizes have been proven to have the greatest impact in the earliest grades. I’m inclined to agree with him.

More than once in conversation with my fellow parents, I’ve come across the question espoused by Chris Whittle, author of Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education: “Which would be better, a bad teacher with 15 kids or a good one with 30?” Overwhelmingly, teachers I spoke with about larger class sizes said even a bad teacher in a small classroom has more control over the kids — and their assimilation of the material — than the best teacher in a room with 30 or more kids. “It comes down to classroom management,” said Renee Watkins, a kindergarten teacher in South Carolina. “The bigger the class, the more time you have to spend on that — especially if you have kids with behavior issues.” And Lauren Patterson, a veteran early-childhood educator who has taught in Utah, Vermont, and Colorado, said the resulting burnout in educators can be just as detrimental to kids. “How can you expect to keep teachers when they’re leaving every day feeling exhausted, and like they didn’t accomplish anything?” she asked. “You can’t. It’s a very bad cycle.”

Not to mention the cumulative shortfall that comes as work becomes more advanced and kids fall further behind. The worst kind of cocktail comes to mind: burned-out teachers, overwhelmed by over-sized classes, unable to give kids the individualized attention they need to master the material, creating a virtual sinkhole into which more kids can fall into. Some recent research refers to third grade as the mission critical grade to determine kids’ academic success, the year in which the transition is made from learning to read to reading to learn. In my mind, this only seems to bolster the argument for carving out more individualized attention in the earliest grades to make sure that first milestone is met on time.

Still, class sizes are growing — likely as a direct result of the financial crash of 2008 that forced cutbacks, or, at least, created a reason for states to loosen CSR requirements. But that very same crash may have also impacted the way families can compensate for the class sizes. For instance, in spite of the fact that our kindergarten is half a day, there is an extended-day program offered to kids who qualify as at-risk for falling behind their peers. The extended-day program is smaller and provides more individualized attention. This isn’t an opt-in thing; the school needs to determine that your kid’s at-risk. Hence, our town also has several excellent private, tuition-based kindergarten enrichment programs. Most are designed to complement the public school experience with smaller classes and a specific curriculum, and some even offer a combination of child-care and tutoring. My son is lucky to be enrolled in such a program, but what about the kids whose families can’t — for reasons of finances or logistics — provide that supplement for their kids? Will they, by virtue of their circumstances, become at risk for falling behind because their learning environment is, frankly, too crowded?

When I was growing up, I attended a small public K-8 school with small class sizes that allowed the teachers to meet the diverse academic needs of each student. I know I can’t recreate the experience I had — for one thing, our kindergarten met in the small, historic building that had once housed K-8 students in, essentially, one room. But in every grade, I had teachers who knew me well enough to ensure that I wasn’t just coasting — and that my talkative nature didn’t get the better of my academic success — and I was placed in a “Gifted and Talented Program” by third grade.

So far, my son’s teacher has been able to see his spirit as just that … spirited. So far, he’s coming home with more letter recognition, more sounds, more reading skills. He’s happy and he likes school — in spite of the fact that they sing the “baby” ABC’s song every day.

And I know there is more to education than academics. I want my kids to learn as much from the social environment as they do from the books they read. The thing is, I need to make sure they’re not falling through the cracks in the effort. And it’s hard to think these super-sized classes don’t create the perfect environment for just these types of falls.

Are other parents just as afraid as I am? I sent the question out to my Facebook friends and got a mix of opinions. Many said class-size consequences depend on teaching style. Others noted that it depends on the kid’s own learning style: Are they trying not to get noticed by the teacher? Are they needier learners? One friend said when she subbed for a second grade class of 28, it was flat-out bedlam and definitely impacted learning, and another told me about how her own daughter was able to coast by in a big class. “My daughter is in second grade — and she’s very good at looking like she’s reading, when she’s actually just memorized the words,” says Stephanie Plimpton in Cranwell, NJ. “To me, it’s critical that her teacher notices if a student is learning to sight-read. This can only be picked up by individual attention that simply can’t happen in a group of 29 kids, especially when some of those kids are practically melting into the wall trying not to get noticed. My friend’s daughter got to third grade without any of her teachers noticing she didn’t have reading fundamentals in place.”

With the recent, troubling news from the College Board that SAT reading scores have reached a 40-year low, stories like Stephanie’s are downright frightening. So here’s how I try to maintain my “keep calm” mantra: While I still cringe at a large kindergarten class and still believe in the research that says smaller is better, I know from experience that when there was a gap between the teacher’s instruction and my ability to master the material, engaging teachers plus parents who were actively involved in my education going to bat for me (or encouraging me to go to bat for myself) were factors in my own school success. So far, we’ve been hard-pressed to find a teacher who didn’t care about giving our sons the best education possible. I just wish we could make it easier for the teachers to do just that.

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