With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Class Size: The Common Sense Bus doesn't stop on School Reform Blvd.

Reformers say: "But there's no research on benefits of smaller class size."

I'm increasingly confronted by some local, self-described school reformers who minimize the effects of rising class sizes on effective teaching and learning. "There's no research supporting smaller class size", they tell me. Of course, they are wrong.

But even showing them a pile of evidence, including the famous STAR study, doesn't seem to do much good. Actually, I don't think they are really into "looking at the data." Evidence seems to confuse or bore them. Instead they seem content to merely repeat what they hear from teacher-bashing, budget-slashing politicians like Mitt Romney or corporate-style reformers like Bill Gates and Secretary Arne Duncan, who claim that fewer, higher-paid teachers teaching larger classes is the solution to the budget crisis.

Higher teacher pay does sound nice. But, as you might expect in these difficult times, what we really end up with are massive increases in class size, downward pressure on teacher pay and our best, most experienced teachers being replaced by cheaper newbies or TFAers.

Kindergarten class with 51 children 
My argument now has been reduced to an appeal to common sense. I say, just try teaching a kindergarten class with 51 children or a first-grade room with 48 kids likes the ones at Avalon Park Elementary, a school with nearly all African-American kids from low-income families on Chicago's south side. I don't care how accomplished an early-childhood teacher you are, you are being set up to fail.

Unfortunately, the common sense bus no longer stops on School Reform Blvd.

The numbers cited above are not isolated examples but typify the conditions for thousands of CPS students who started this year in grossly overcrowded classrooms and will likely face even worse conditions in the coming school year. They come from a new report from Sarah Karp at the Better Government Association (BGA) who writes:
System-wide, about 1,600 elementary classrooms – or about 20 percent of the nearly 8,500 non-charter elementary classrooms in the 2014-2015 school year – exceeded CPS’ own standards, the BGA found. Two-thirds of those overcrowded classrooms are on the South and West sides. About half have 90 percent or more low-income students.
There are no formal penalties for exceeding classroom size standards.
Even though the teachers union is technically barred under recent legislation from negotiating down class size, you can bet that it’s an issue at the center of current contract negotiations.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey says,
"We are worried about [CPS] devastating class sizes. We are worried about them herding students into classes, like animals into stockyards. We are looking for some assurances, especially in the lower levels."
At some point, I'm hoping the reformers will be forced to come to their senses. More research probably won't do it. But maybe growing community anger will.

After all, even the neo-confederates in South Carolina have now agreed to take down that flag.


  1. Every good teacher knows the effects of class size. Whether it is in the primary grades where many children often need just a bit of extra help to get them on their way to reading and math success or in the upper grades where social issues start to take hold, class size is one of the most important issues a teacher faces. The fact that Chicago teachers are not allowed to negotiate class size tells you immediately how the children in Chicago are viewed in Springfield.

    1. It goes beyond the effects near-double class sizes have on kids learning and on teachers teaching, and those are severe. Jumbo-sized classes also mean that the teacher's job just got considerably bigger. More groups to teach, more paperwork , more parents to phone, more prep time, more materials.more parent conferences, more data-handling, more meetings with specialists......more, more, more. Always more. More work required of teachers should mean (and would mean in any private sector job) more compensation. The issue of class size is not just about student learning!

  2. Thanks to the ILL-Annoy legislature for passing SB 7--& to Jonah Edelman & his Stand ON Children for coming here & pushing it. Must give credit--as well--to our wonderful IEA & IFT leaders who allowed it without a fight.
    BTW--a comment on your NOLA Charter School post several days ago--the picture of those adorable little girls in their charter school uniforms--was snapped by a Getty Images photog. Interestingly enough, Getty Images is a stage & screen theatrical talent agency--huge in the Industry. Chances are that most of the pictures one sees of well-known stars and celebrities were taken by someone from Getty Images. IMO,
    looked like a posed picture: quite certain that's not the norm for such schools that require orderly, silent lines, prompted responses, consistent pupil eye-contact & no
    socializing/talking in lunchrooms. Hmm...

  3. This would be a no brainer for any sincere School Reformers; of course that doesn't apply to Corporate School Reformers who actually want to turn schools into indoctrination centers. Real school reformers want to address legitimate issues and good ones would fund them properly.

  4. Many charters have opted for small class size because they completely understand the research and experience that you cite.
    As a fan of significant site level decision making whether in district or charter, I think that this is a decision that people working in a school ought to be able to make - and that it's much more feasible when there is a small central office staff.

    We're working closely with the St Paul Federation of Teachers on this issue - too much $ in central office, not enough provided to schools.

  5. Joe,
    Please explain how a public school can "opt for small class size". Isn't class size driven by school budgets. Unless of course, charters really aren't public in that sense.

  6. Good to see that you used the word "some" to describe the self-discribed school reformers. On the internet, "some" too easily slides into all.

  7. what we really end up with are massive increases in class size, downward pressure on teacher pay and our best, most experienced teachers being replaced by cheaper newbies or TFAers.
    Charter Bus


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.