Big or Small?

7 Oct

Thank you for this post Aunt Olivia:

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Is it true that there is no scientific evidence that smaller sized classrooms are a better learning environment for students? An example was provided that classes in China and Japan are very large and those students achieve at a higher level.

Just wondering. Thanks

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I have just finished doing a bit of research on the benefits of smaller classrooms and the reasons why American students are consistently outperformed by students from almost anywhere else. Interestingly, Taiwan was mentioned in several articles since students’ math scores here are among the top in the world.

So, I will now sloppily paraphrase the research while intertwining it with my own ideas. The effect will be a bunch of conclusions you cannot trust.

It has been proven that smaller class sizes do increase test scores, but the class size must be between 13-17 students. You cannot just reduce from 28 to 25 and see any positive results. Also, smaller class sizes only help in the lower grades: K-2nd grade. And, the only real worthwhile increase was seen in minority students, not as much in white students. But, as Aunt Olivia says, many other successful nations have much larger class sizes. So, why do many school districts in the U.S. reduce class sizes for all grades, especially since it costs so much money?

I don’t know. I think they incorrectly believe it improves scores and/or they want to help their teachers survive.

I believe U.S. teachers are spread thin, and the culture in America does not support this job or this type of living. Here is what I mean: In Taiwan, people work long hours. They know how to balance their lives and stay healthy, though. I’m generalizing hugely, but overall most Taiwanese don’t go out drinking, especially not late, their diets are healthier on average, and they can get medical services cheaply with their national health insurance (including a chiropractor or massages from the doctor). It doesn’t seem like many people have a lot of free time, but when they do, they spend it doing valuable but relatively easy things. I wouldn’t describe them as sporty or say that their motto is “live life to the fullest”. Changes in Taiwan are handled smartly and efficiently, and people like to conform to standards and rules.

In the U.S. there are heated arguments and changes with growing pains. People avoid slowing down, eating right, and going to the doctor… or they take too much medicine or self-medicate with certain addictions like sugar, marijuana, etc.

So, when I picture a class of 38 kids here, or in Korea, I picture an organized unit where almost every kid wants to excel even if they fall asleep on their desk from exhaustion once in a while. The students are not as needy because the majority of families here take child rearing very seriously. The birthrate is .9 here because people only have kids if they have enough money and enough time.

When I picture a class of 38 kids in America, I imagine either a good teacher doing a damn good job, but being run down little by little because of the issues listed below or a teacher who has given up on doing things well and just let’s a certain amount of chaos reign, living in a sort of la la land, waiting for retirement. Or, I guess there’s also the teacher whose students don’t take a state test for that subject… and this teacher might be great or not great, but probably a little less stressed which means a better retention and sanity rate. Most of these scenarios sound unappealing for both the teacher and the student no matter if the class is large or small.

The four big issues that used to weigh on me (and I suspect others) as a teacher in America:

1.) Many students need to be taught how to act and convinced that it’s in their best interest to try hard and act decent (basic things that parents could be helping out with but often times aren’t). This is a prominent problem in a Title 1 school that receives government funding due to the high percentage of low income students. This was not a huge problem for me, but it does take more of your energy than you realize at the time.

2.) The curriculum is lacking or crappy (this did the most damage to my teaching experience).

3.) Pressure to focus on too many goals at once. The lowest achievers always win because of the push to not “leave them behind”, resulting in the average and gifted kids being left behind.

4.) Teacher psychological and/or health stress because of a general feeling of being pulled in too many directions and not succeeding at or completing all tasks.

From my observations and instinct so far, Taiwan does not have the above problems in the magnitude America does. So for America, the class size is critical in terms of teacher sanity. If we give teachers more students, we are just exacerbating what is already a stressed system even if it is not the class size that directly determines student success. Would you rather grade 140 or 200 two page essays every six weeks?

Today I almost punched in the digits 140 onto the copier; that is the number of students I had last year in Texas. I had very small class sizes. This year the teachers there have significantly more students per class due to the budget cut backs and growing numbers in general. Remembering, a couple seconds later, that I only need 10 copies at this new job was kind of like waking up at 6 am on Saturday morning and realizing you can go back to sleep indefinitely.

And, I won’t even grade that worksheet that I was photocopying. I will just be encouraging success, and helping each student achieve it right then and there because I can. I honestly think adding more students won’t change our class drastically unless the range of abilities is widened considerably. But if my curriculum was lacking, my students were starving for positive attention (or addicted to negative attention), or I myself was stressed out because of the pressure of it all, I’d have a hard time being a good teacher regardless of whether I had two students or 20. The reason my school will only put 16 students in my class at the most is because it is an expensive private school that can afford to believe in a small classroom size when teaching a new language at this young of an age. Also, our rooms are very small.

Disclaimer: Taiwan does have difficult students. In fact, there are some students at my current school who are considered difficult to teach, though it is NOTHING compared to the neglected or bitter students I encountered in Texas or that I hear about from my sister, a first grade teacher. My class, though, happens to have awesome students right now. I only have one student that wanted to test the rules over and over, and he’s mostly stopped. Thank goodness for my good luck; it’s helping revive my spirit.

It might be smart to provide all teachers with a thorough curriculum that matches state tests and real world skills. Since I was teaching all day, I didn’t have time to write quality curriculum; I tried to write it after school, but there were 30 other duties to do after school as well. I did succeed in writing a pretty decent writing curriculum and had a couple good strands of reading curriculum, but it cost me a bit of sanity and an active social life. Weaving both writing and reading together more is what I would’ve worked on during my fourth year if there had been a fourth year. The school leaders said, “The curriculum you have been given is the one used in the majority of school districts in Texas.” They were trying to justify its merit, but all I was thinking was, “How Sad!” My heart cries because now I know the frustration that this lack of foresight causes in the lives of the students who want to learn and teachers who want to help all over this huge state!

You know, I think I’ll add this to my list of my next year’s possible career goals: help Texas improve its 6th, 7th, and 8th grade language arts curriculum. CSCOPE just doesn’t cut it. Too bad the combination of the words “curriculum” plus “write” still sounds like crunching metal to my ears.

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2 Responses to “Big or Small?”

  1. Lynn F. October 8, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

    Good insight. I’m convinced it’s all about class size for American students at every grade level because our culture is so different and our kids behave differently. How is it possible that anyone can disagree with the need for smaller class sizes in American schools?

  2. Olivia October 13, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    Hi Emily,
    Thanks for the info. You gave me a lot of food for thought. I wish it was different in the U.S. Much has been covered in Chicago lately because with the new mayor came a new superintendent and new School board president (he is involved with IIT and the board I work with) so this issue is very much in the spotlight. Plus, the Secretary of Education Obama selected is the past superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Lots to think about and I’m glad you are still willing to teach because you are right – children need you!
    Lots of Love~

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