All over California this month students are taking the Common Core Assessment. The one thing the school districts and administrators want is better performance. There is one simple thing the state of California can do to raise student scores and improve their learning. Reduce the class sizes.
We all know how much harder things are when the numbers rise. You only have to look at what happens with protest marches and demonstrations. The more people there are the more likely that something will happen to disrupt the demonstration. It was always harder for my parents to explain something to all four of us at once instead of telling us individually.
In the same way, teaching a class of 40 or more middle school students is much harder. When you are teaching something new only about 10 students will understand, and that is on a good day. The next time you teach the same concept 10 more will understand. With an average class size of 40 this means that you must teach the same idea 4 times and then reteach it to ensure it is not forgotten. When you move students into groups and assign a task it takes 10 minutes to get 40 kids sitting in groups of four. That’s because you have to make sure that you can get around the room to monitor their practice. repeat your instructions to the students who weren’t listening the first time, and the another 5 minutes to get them out of groups. That is a total of 15 minutes when nobody is learning and no teaching is going on. (It takes less time to get out of groups because students want to leave when the bell rings!) In a 50-minute period that means that the teacher has 30 minutes to take attendance, teach a concept and give student time to practice the concept. Even if the concept is new you have to spend time re-teaching for those kids who didn’t get it the first time. This may even be the third time providing a group task to provide more practice in the concept you taught last week! It is the numbers that are the problem not the kids, the teacher, or the curriculum. The fact is that the ratio for excellent learning and teaching is 18:1. Studies have shown that for every 5 kids over that best practice number of 18 the scores will drop.
When you test those same students more time is used. You have 40 kids and 49 laptops or iPads. First pass out the computers and show and tell everyone how to turn them on. (You might be thinking young people know all about tech. but these are not ‘phones.) Hand out to each student the card with his or her 10-digit number. Then explain how to find the website for the test. Walk around the room and make sure everyone has found the right site. Now tell every student the number of the test session, and walk around at least four more times to check they are all in the right place. Dash back to your computer and sign them into the test. Make sure they are taking the right test (not Math when they are supposed to be taking English and visa versa. Check on the students who raised their hand to ask you how to turn on the computer. Go back to your machine and register another ten kids. I think you can see what I mean about how much harder this is with 40 kids rather than 18.
I have said 40 kids, but this is the average number my district set, so that the ratio was expected to be 40:1. In fact I have had classes with as many as 48 students in a class, and my average was usually closer to 43. As you can imagine, with this many students in class management became a priority. I had to set permanent routines into place so that discipline became less of an issue. I was always so grateful for the hard socialization work elementary teachers had done with the students so that I could cope with these huge numbers. Yes, they talked, and yes, I had to teach concepts mire than once. I still remember that class of 48. There weren’t enough seats, so four of them had to sit at the computer tables until I took attendance. Then if someone was absent they could move to a desk. I had to work twice as hard on memorizing names that year. The thing that still amazes me when I look back is that some real learning went on in that room.
I know that other states have lower class sizes, and not simply because they are more rural. I New York the class size is supposed to be 30. I know this from articles in the newspapers and teaching papers, and because if you order teaching materials from companies base on the East Coast they only provide 30-36 of something per packet. If New York can reduce their class sizes and insist on an average of 30 why can’t California? Kids would learn more not only academically but socially. Test scores and other assessments would go up because reduction in class sizes would result in increased learning. Teachers could implement the Common Core strategies the standards demand, and waste less time convincing 48 people to listen.
Next time someone complains about low teat scores ask them how many kids they think they could effectively “manage” at one time.