Class size, who cares?

Do you care what a stranger thinks?  How about a friend?

Most people would say that they care more about a friend’s opinion versus a stranger’s, although many would say both.  I imagine Bill Gates is in the former camp.  As he laments the state of education in his recent op-ed and advocates for larger class sizes with better teachers, I imagine that he doesn’t care that I think he is foolish and wrong.  Loud wrong.

I could cite the literature and websites that show the positive impact of smaller classrooms (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc; 1 is a very good summary).  I could throw stones at his research and his interpretations (9, 11, 12, 13) .  I could even highlight the absurdity, lack of common sense, or how the school his kids are in have much smaller class sizes, a selling point no doubt (9, 13).  He probably still wouldn’t care.

He feels that education needs a revolution. His foundation has “discovered” that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is a major determinate of success.  In their new studies, they hope to capture and bottle what great teachers do by surveying, observing, and even videotaping lessons and instruction. In the meantime, he wants the great teachers to take on more students, exposing them to a better education while also getting rid of the less effective teachers.  The teachers he surveyed are on board (although this seems disputable (9, 13)) and the results could even save districts some money.

In theory, the larger class size idea makes sense.  In practice, it is more like the paper clip from Microsoft Word.  Well intentioned, but an overall failure.

The folly in this theory is that you can figure out what makes a great teacher great.  Sure, in the classrooms of great teachers, you may find certain techniqes being used.  You may be able to find a few lessons that overlap.  Your surveys may reveal a focus on a certain skill or trait.  But, I am not sure you can capture one of the most important factors:  the student-teacher relationship.

Good teachers know their students. They know their moods. They know their concerns.  They know when a kid is getting it or is still lost. They know when they can be pushed and challenged. They know when they can do better or when they are giving it their all.  They know all these things.

Great teachers, I submit, not only know, but also act.  They are part of their kids’ lives.  They alter moods by fostering positive environments.  They change their methods for kids who don’t get it and have extension activities for the kids that do.  They diffuse the ticking time bomb and want to know what is wrong. They push, they challenge, and they expect greatness, everyday.

For my wife this means greeting her students at the door, welcoming them to her classroom everyday.  It means asking how the kids are doing and listening to answers that are sometimes happy, often sad, but always honest.  It means following  up that day, that week, or that month. It means remembering.  It means celebrating their accomplishments and sharing their sorrows for things both inside and outside of school.    It means fostering and providing the things these kids need whether it be praise, advice, or just someone to listen.  It means driving a permission form to a kid’s house so they can go on a field trip.  It means volunteering to tutor a kid that can’t pay for instruction.  It means giving more of herself than her husband would like, and wanting to give even more.

But it is more than that.  It means sharing herself too.  Her kids know her as well as she knows them.  They know that she loves to travel and visit the world. They know she eats healthy and loves her workouts.  They know when she is upset or in a good mood.  They know she loves dark chocolate and that her family is very important to her.  It means they know far more about her husband than he would ever share with strangers.  It means they know so much about our life, which can be a bit unnerving to me.  It is not even an option for her. They know because she tells them.

My wife is connected with this class like all the ones before.  That is why I hear about all of her students when she comes home.  Some are driving her nuts, some are having great success, other are in a tough spot.  She cares about them and that goes beyond the clock.  She cares about them as people and she can’t help it.

The feeling is mutual. Her students care what she thinks because they know she cares about them.  They care about the test because it is important to her.  When she asks them to do something, they know it is because it is good for them.  They trust her because they know she cares.

Studies have found that the teacher-student relationship is among the most important factors in student achievement (14, 15).  By raising class size, you simply dilute that effect.  You make it harder for teachers like my wife to know and connect with her kids.  This coupled with the research on the benefits of small class size tells me that Bill is wrong.

But Bill Gates doesn’t care.   Unfortunately, neither will teachers or students if he gets his way.  At least we’ll save some money, we all care about that.

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