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Changing Perspective on Class Size

In the discussion on class size, the political pendulum appears to be swinging. Previously, the pressure was on for fewer students per class. Now, many leaders and thinkers are arguing for fewer teachers but of a higher quality. This will force class sizes to increase. Yet as teacher Ellie Herman points out in her recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece The myth of the extraordinary teacher, she can be “a whole lot more “extraordinary” in my smallest than in my largest” classes.

Both sides assume a classroom with one teacher and a group of students, the same model that has been in place since the founding of our country. In fact, many states determine funding levels for districts by mandating specific class sizes.  But what if we’ve got the assumptions all wrong? What if instead we challenged the predominant one-teacher classroom paradigm? 

I recently wrote for Education Next about a hypothetical school called “No Max School,” where teachers have more time for the tasks that require their expertise. More time for teachers to jointly review their lesson plans and collaborate with colleagues. More time to re-teach students who have not achieved mastery of the topic presented. Classes are taught by teams of three and more teachers who group and regroup students throughout the day to ensure that all students receive significant amounts of one-on-one or small-group instruction in core subjects. 

These innovations are not free. They would require compromises and tradeoffs that many consider unacceptable given our current mindsets. For instance, No Max School has a schedule where any lessons delivered via lecture were given to at least 60 students, thus requiring only one teacher for the group with a teacher assistant to monitor behavior. When tests are given, all the students take them during one period under supervision of a non-teacher, freeing up teachers for collaboration or small group work. Students might review vocabulary or practice language in a lab with 50 computers so that other students can meet with teachers in groups of eight or less. Admittedly, No Max School is not a silver-bullet solution, nor would it work everywhere. Each school needs a system that bests suits its population of students and staff. This is precisely why staffing one teacher with one group of students in virtually every classroom across the country isn’t working. The current system does not account for the unique needs of each student body.

When we consider only changing what is in front of us, we are wearing blinders that keep us from exploring all possibilities. Today, we understand the limitations of archaic educational models like students silently copying notes from a chalkboard. Perhaps it is also time to retire the one-teacher classroom.

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