Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A snow day, a lesson in class size

    It's not the dollar-driven cottage industry that denying evidence about global warming has become, but stay tuned.

    With budget savings in view, the full-court press is on in state legislatures to deny that smaller class sizes help students do better.

    Tight state budgets are forcing the "science," the rationalizing of larger class sizes. In reality, we are talking about the whims of policy makers who can only guess what it actually takes to "leave no child behind" relative to the very standards on which they insist.

    As a parent, it always was simple intuition to me that a smaller class made a difference. Then one day I saw it in reality — as a teacher.

    My intuition now tells me that those who trivialize class size aren't as interested in student success as their dime-store slogans say.

    In Florida in November, voters rejected a dollar-driven effort to amend the state constitution and to lift strict class-size requirements.

    In Texas, state Comptroller Susan Combs has advocated removing a long-mandated 22-1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-4. Her plan would eliminate 11,900 teaching positions statewide.

    Combs' report states that classes with a 1-25 ratio "could operate without any loss of instructional effectiveness." 

     Well. That depends. What kind of class are we talking about? If the issue is the basic skills that second-graders need to compete with Taiwanese second-graders, Combs' claim is specious at best.     

      How do I know? Because I saw how a smaller class benefited one particular student on a basic skill in a rare snow day in the Sun Belt.

      On that February day, a dusting left Central Texas streets slippery, at least until midday. About half of the students in my 8 a.m. developmental writing class at the community college hit "snooze" and stayed in their warm beds.

       Remarkably, among those who showed up was one I least expected. Call him Tony. Tony ultimately would not pass the course, for he would find just about any atmospheric event as grounds not to attend. And when he was there, he made himself invisible. Expecting him to show up for extra help outside of class also was out of the question.

      On this snow day, Tony — being inexplicably present in an almost barren classroom — could not hide. And I, being there as well, had to teach something to someone.

      To my surprise, when it was him and me, Tony and I were connecting, and he was learning. I felt a great buzz. I knew Tony could succeed in my class. I felt he believed the same.

      It didn't happen, partly because of his poor attendance and partly because with a typically large class, in no way could I address his needs to make the requisite difference in his instruction. But the snow-day experience pointed out the absurdity of the claim made by people who say class size doesn't matter.

      Of course it does, particularly when the emphasis is on the very basic skills on which schools are hammered by state policy makers — math, writing, reading. These are endeavors in which the teacher needs to go around the room and make sure everyone is on the same page.

      The Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, calls class-size reduction one of very few proven means of increasing student achievement.

       In denial, some policy makers have their heads back in ivy-dotted college lecture periods where the fascination quotient (and tuition invested) keeps an auditorium of sophomores and freshmen rapt. Yeah, try that with second-graders.

       Class size matters. Anyone who believes otherwise ought to try saddling up 25 mounts from differing starting points and riding them to one destination.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


1 comment:

Leonie Haimson said...

thank you so much, John Young, for standing up for the truth and against the class size deniers. But I do think it's dollar driven; look at the influence of Gates etc. on the debate!