The Bizarro World of Education Reform


The policy of public school consolidation is recipe for disaster. It completely misses the point, and disregards reliable research that suggests otherwise. In fact, consolidating public schools and creating larger class sizes is precisely the wrong prescription to administer to the patient. If the primary aim is to increase student achievement, then create smaller class sizes, and not larger ones.

At first glance, this may seem common sensical: smaller class sizes means more student understanding. However, it’s surprising how difficult it has become for education “reformers” to understand this basic, fundamental concept. Even when faced with research, they seem to find ways to avoid or misunderstand the main argument: class size matters! Rather than take my word or opinion as gospel, base your opinion on sound research. I will use the following published study, presented at the 2008 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in New York. Peter Blatchford, Paul Bassett and Penelope Brown from the School of Psychology and Human Development at the Institute of Education, University of London, conducted and presented the report cited.

Now, I know many education “experts” will undoubtedly respond to my argument by suggesting that a highly effective teacher should handle any class size. Moreover, such teachers should manage any class size, and plan for instructional best practices, i.e. learning stations and group activities, to differentiate the process and product. This all sounds great. However, real research suggest otherwise. Blatchford, et al, states that “the larger the class size, the more whole class teacher led instruction occurred.” Again, this sounds like common sense right? So common, that even the very same education “reformers” shun the practice of teachers talking “too much” during whole class instruction. However, this is the exact opposite of what actually occurs in a large classroom environment. In fact, the more students in a room, the more difficult it will be to reach them all.

Yet, education “reformers” zealously defend their consolidation policy by suggesting that a highly effective teacher can teach and reach any class size. This is a weak argument at best, and foolish one at worst. Simply put, if you want more highly effective teachers in your system then place them in more highly effective educational environments.  Again, Blatchford, et al, states, “…smaller classes seem to allow an environment in which low attainers are not only less off task but less likely to receive coercive talk from their teachers. This appears to be a more productive educational environment.” Furthermore, “…smaller class can be a valuable initiative right through school, but could be particularly targeted, at secondary level, at lower attaining pupils. If not, the evidence is that they will be more prone to go off task and teacher’s will have to use up more time bringing them back on task.” Ladies and gentlemen, is creating larger class sizes not the exact opposite of what is necessary to reach each student?

Putting the research aside, I wish to speak from personal experience. I am a highly effective teacher (2012-2013), and, during the first semester, I had three 7th grade social studies classes. At the onset of the school year, my first period class consisted of twenty-two students, which, by far, was my favorite part of the day. In fact, it’s one of the best classes I’ve had the privilege of teaching. In contrast, my second class of the day, right after lunch, consisted of thirty-nine 7th grade students. This was, by far, my least favorite part of the day. Amazingly, the same “highly effective” instructional practices that I used during my first period went flying out of the window due to the sheer size of the class. After the first eight weeks of the school year, and after much prodding, this class size was finally reduced to twenty-nine students. And. What a WORLD of difference that has made!

In an ideal setting, student misbehavior is minimal. However, when you’re actually teaching within a low SES and high trauma middle school, student misconduct is a daily challenge. Although I agree that an effective teacher SHOULD be able to set up a positive, learning environment, regardless of the class size, placing a teacher in an overcrowded classroom, which consists of high needs students is a highly ineffective policy.

Education policy makers need to understand the realities from within an actual classroom, especially within challenging environments. They must understand the context of the neighborhood, and how its social milieu manifests within the school and classroom. Without such a direct connection, policies will become nothing more than ideal statements written on expensive paper. In other words, they’re kind, but meaningless words.

My fellow educator, it should not take a genius to understand that a smaller class size, especially within a high needs neighborhood public middle and high school, IS the most effective setting to ensure student achievement. If you don;t believe me, then ask your local charter school. Besides, why do you think private charter schools and public charters schools insist on smaller class sizes? But, putting that aside, why should charter school teachers, alone, enjoy working in a highly effective classroom setting? Why should they be given the golden ticket, while we – public school teachers – are left begging for the same opportunity? Creating larger class sizes, particularly in challenging schools, is the wrong approach, and creates a recipe for teacher churn and low expectations.

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