By Peter Smagorinsky
Fiscal conservatives have often criticized government spending as "throwing money at the problem." Public education—"government schools" in this nomenclature—is often among those considered over-resourced, as stated by Hoover Institute Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek: "available evidence suggests that there is no relationship between expenditures and the achievement of students and that such traditional remedies as reducing class sizes or hiring better trained teachers are unlikely to improve matters."
Hanushek and others consider "available evidence" largely to consist of standardized test scores. Bill Gates, for instance, after investing a small fortune in small schools, decided that because test scores didn't change significantly in the small schools he underwrote, class size is irrelevant. He in turn has invested additional small fortunes (now totaling over $3 billion) in initiatives predicated on the idea that large classes don't inhibit learning, because test scores remain flat regardless of the number of kids a teacher must manage and instruct each period of the day.
These researchers and financiers rely on “big data” to inform their opinions. These studies rely on statistical evidence, and the bigger the data set, the better.
But the bigger the data set, the less the nuance.
My own research is much smaller in scope. I mostly study single cases in detail. Although some find studying small samples to have questionable potential for generalization, I find it instructive to look closely at the real people who are reduced to numbers in the sort of research that reigns over educational policy.
I recently conducted an interview with a case study participant I’ve been following for seven years, as part of a longitudinal study — a multi-year project that takes into account how one’s thinking develops over time —of how teachers develop understandings of how to teach effectively. This was the final interview for this young woman, because following a very frustrating experience in one of Georgia’s elite school districts, she has left the profession for a career in the hospitality industry.
I have reported on her here in the past, before her return to Georgia, when she taught English in a school in rural South Carolina. She taught there for three years, experiencing both joy and frustration. As she told me recently, in that district, her typical class size was 20 students. She learned all of her students' names by the second day of school, something she worked hard to accomplish. Her motivation for teaching, she had often said, was to teach kids, more than it was to teach English.
Getting to know her students promptly helped her teach them effectively, because she cared about them as people. Not only did she know her own students quickly, she knew many other kids from hall duty and other interactions. Engaging with kids, even on the days when they had other things on their minds than school, was what had made this profession so appealing to her.
She and her husband had deliberately planned to move back to Georgia to return home to their families. Getting a job in the same district she’d attended as a student was a dream come true. She began the school year with great anticipation. By the end of one semester, she told her principal that she’d finish the year because she had committed to a contract, but wouldn’t be back after that.
In one semester, she’d gotten burned out by the work conditions of what many would regard as a desirable district for a teaching career.
Many of her reasons for leaving her job, and the profession, could be traced to a single source: an oppressive student load. In contrast to classes of 20 in which she quickly learned her students’ names and personalities, she was assigned classes that averaged 35 students, totaling about 175 for a subject, English, in which teachers should optimally assign and grade a lot of writing.
Let’s say that she took one minute each day to devote to each student assigned to her classes. That’s three additional hours a day. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day or week to teach such large numbers in caring, personal ways.
But the time per student was only part of the problem. With so many students, she had trouble learning their names quickly, taking weeks instead of days. Meanwhile, with students getting schedule changes for several weeks into each term, the idea of learning so many names of so many students who might be gone tomorrow rendered that essential value of hers obsolete.
The great waves of students produced additional problems for her as well. Out of 175 students, you’ll have some hardheads, some kids with unseen problems, some kids working long hours after school, and kids with all manner of other reasons for finding schoolwork to be an afterthought. With small class numbers, those kids can become known relatively quickly, and individual attention can be catered to provide them with an encouraging academic plan.
But with enormous classes in which students get lost in the crowd, a teacher might have far less energy for chasing down kids who are disengaged and helping them find a pathway forward in the classroom. If you don’t know them, you can’t possibly know what makes them tick. And the more kids crammed into classrooms, the more likely those kids are to be left behind.
Class size was one of two points of frustration she named. The other was the scripted curriculum that required all teachers of a grade level across the whole district to teach the same thing in the same way on the same day, every day. This teacher, in contrast, had gone through a teacher education program that had taught her how to think about teaching her discipline. Taking instructional planning out of teaching might please teachers who are less invested in the intellectual aspects of teaching.
But to a teacher who finds planning to be highly stimulating, exciting, enjoyable, and fulfilling, teaching a centrally designed instructional script is immensely frustrating. Like the reduction of real kids to test scores, the implementation of a scripted curriculum takes the engaging, interpersonal, relational career of teaching and reduces it to mechanical operation.
A teacher entrusted to exercise her judgment is always playing with ideas, tinkering with lessons, and using her intellect to teach more effectively. Teaching scripted lessons requires no judgment, only fidelity to someone else’s idea of what to do.
The teacher I’m featuring is one you would want working with your own children. She’d wanted to be a teacher since starting first grade, and had dedicated college to teacher education. She’d found her first job both stimulating and frustrating; but when she moved to a district with overwhelming numbers of students and a centralized curriculum that removed her own judgment from instructional decisions, she couldn’t do it any more.
Does class size matter? The answer depends on where you look for evidence.