On the landscape of today’s education debates, issues are usually cast as “pro-teacher” or “pro-reformer.” It seems like many people prefer to stay in their own definitive camps when discussing hot topics like teacher quality, Common Core State Standards, and “Last in, first out.” But the more we draw boundaries between “us” and “them,” the less we learn, and the more kids lose out.
With the help of my colleagues, I would like to bring nuance and a renewed sense of urgency to a topic that too often gets cast as a black and white, "pro-teacher" issue: class size.
Class size reduction is not a silver bullet: alone, it will not narrow the achievement gap, nor create paradigm shifts in schools nor eliminate systemic issues of privilege. Just look at the research findings: there is little correlation between school effectiveness and smaller class sizes.
However, despite the research and the need for many other urgent and comprehensive reforms, many teachers—myself included—can tell you that class size does matter.
Where I teach in South Minneapolis, even though our contract specifies limits on class sizes and our community votes for referendums to keep classes small, elementary classrooms still surpass 30 students, and secondary classes surpass 35.
I have spent 13 years developing skills to manage large classes. I have learned a great deal, for example, from Minneapolis Public Schools teacher Kristin Bauck, who is masterful at creating routines to manage large class sizes. Kristin posts all classroom directions (with visuals!), manages her space effectively and consistently, and uses an "ask your neighbor" policy to filter out simple questions. It’s true: a skilled teacher can manage more than I thought possible before I first entered the classroom.
But there is a tipping point: a point where there are simply too many needs in a classroom, where one teacher can no longer be effective. Low self-efficacy prompts many teachers to leave the profession because the stakes of teaching are sometimes too high, and the control teachers have is oftentimes too low.
A class of 35 seventh graders—especially in the city—has many diverse needs. In my seventh grade classes, I teach newcomers to the U.S., students with physical and learning disabilities, students who are advanced learners, students with seizure disorders and diabetes, students who are homeless and highly mobile, and students who are self-injurious. My toolbox of strategies from colleagues like Kristin can keep my classroom fairly calm and productive, but, still, I often feel like I cannot meet the learning needs of every student.
Therefore, I am advocating for meaningful, transformative reform that includes a call for smaller class sizes. I ask that my colleagues—both teachers and reformers—take another close look at this issue, which need not be black or white. We can find grey areas and work together to improve education for all kids.
In the meantime, I’d like to use my platform as the MinnCAN teacher policy fellow to also share ideas, solutions and voices of real Minnesota educators, who know that, until policymakers figure out more sustainable solutions, large class sizes will continue.
When large classes are unavoidable, districts must become significantly more innovative with resources and space. For starters, urban schools should undergo major architectural redesign to give students and teachers more space to spread out. We all know that kids need movement in their day, yet we often pack them like sardines into tiny classrooms! Shakopee High School teacher Luke Winspur explained to me that, when he has adequate space, he runs his classrooms with different stations: a cooperative learning station, a skills practice station, a technology station where students might play a game to better understand a concept, and a direct instruction station where Luke works teaches a new skill to a small group of students.
My fellow MPS teacher Kara Cisco contends that a 1:1 digital device program—supported by a technology integration specialist—would allow teachers to incorporate blended learning principles and differentiate instruction in large classes. Blended learning enables teachers to remediate with individual students or small groups, and also offer greater enrichment opportunities for gifted students.
With effective integration of technology and adequate learning spaces, we could create room and time for students to take initiative of their own learning. West Metro Education Program teacher Tom Rademacher, for example, says that if he had to have large classes, he would use direct instruction and a lecture with a large group, and then follow up with smaller "lab" sections throughout the day for more focused instruction.
We teachers will continue to be creative and find ways to teach our kids as best we can. But, please, let’s work together to find more long-term solutions to the issue of class size. Join me in looking at the grey areas to uncover possible opportunities for collaboration and advocacy.
Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.