Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thoughts on Class Size

As high schools prepare to reorganize for the spring semester* in the next few weeks, I'm thinking about class size, and so are some other folks. Large class sizes are, as a rule, problematic here in NYC. It's not so much the size of the class itself; rather, it's the ever-widening scope of what teachers are asked to do, multiplied exponentially as classes grow larger and therefore ever more demanding on the time of teachers. It's also the wide range of students that can be found in the now-typical heterogeneous classroom.

My class sizes tend toward the small size--mid- to upper-20s--for high school classes, and yet I yearn for their being smaller. I am asked to tutor students individually and in small groups; offer multiple opportunities for make-up work; contact parents frequently about grades and behavior; tailor lessons to multiple skill levels (more on this later); assist students with staying organized; and, at the same time, deliver rigorous, complex lessons that will help students to be prepared for the upper echelons of high school and college. As you can imagine, you can plan rigorous, complex lessons, OR you can babysit, counsel, monitor, and cajole. It is very difficult to do both, and becomes ever more difficult as one or two or three more kids transfer into your class every month.

As well, in one of my classes in particular, the wide range of current skill levels is astonishing; I have children, according to one recent assessment, reading on a 3rd grade reading level and children who are ready for senior-level AP classes in the same class. In the same room. At the same time. Meeting the needs of all of these students is already difficult; it is made much harder by trying to accommodate so many of them.

Large class sizes, as Nancy Flanagan points out here, are not necessarily deal-breakers. You might need 40 or 50 students to put together an impressive orchestra or choir, all of whom would certainly need to be in the same room at the same time. Highly motivated and independent students probably also do fine in large, fast-paced classes. But students who need a great deal of emotional support, disciplinary structure, and redirection to stay on task naturally do better in smaller, quieter environments with an adult or two or three who can focus on them more exclusively. Administrators might do well to get a sense of where Nancy is coming from as Regents Week approaches* and re-organization looms large.

*What? Regents Week is coming, you ask, rubbing your eyes blearily in disbelief? Yes. We are almost halfway to summer. Pat yourself on the back!
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