In an effort to stem the tide of falling public school test scores, states and school districts across the country have spent millions to fund costly mandates that dictate the maximum number of students per classroom. In some cases, such as in Florida, these mandates have been dictated by nothing short of a constitutional amendment. This has led to the broad acceptance of specific student/teacher ratios—typically around 20:1—as some magical formula, like the Golden Mean.
Critics of these mandated ratios often point out that there is little evidence that smaller class sizes work. Indeed, a new study by Matthew M. Chingos, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), found that Florida’s mandated class size reductions had no discernible impact on student achievement.
The problem with class size mandates is not whether the mandated class sizes should be 20 or 24 or some other magic number. The problem is that class size mandates end up determining the amount of total dollars that are going to education and result in assigning just enough teachers to hit those ratios. This creates an inflexible structure where we inadvertently institutionalize a broken way of grouping teachers and students into one-teacher classrooms. We isolate teachers, inhibit collaboration and prevent students from receiving the individual attention they need.
What’s wrong with this picture? Consider what happens—or doesn’t happen—in the one-teacher classroom world we have created:
The fact is, class size mandates miss an essential point: The critical success factor is not how many students are in a classroom at a given time, it’s how many teachers are in the classroom, given the specific educational need at that moment. And those needs ebb and flow throughout the school day.
Yet many people—including many education professionals—are so rigidly indoctrinated in the idea of the one-teacher classroom that we can hardly conceive of something different, something potentially better. What would that alternative look like?
Imagine a school with no maximum class sizes whatsoever. Let’s call it No Max School. No Max School breaks a lot of rules and does a lot of things that are considered difficult or even undesirable in a one-teacher classroom world. For example:
So what are teachers doing at No Max School? They are providing individualized instruction in small groups (three to eight students) ranging daily and weekly, in short (10 minute) bursts and in regular longer sessions, depending on the material or the task and each student’s individual need.
Teams of four to six teachers continually collaborate, plan extensively, learn from each other, and hone their practice. Lectures and explanations and exercises and essays are vetted and polished, then critiqued by peers and improved some more. Student work is graded right after it is finished.
Students who don’t master a concept are re-taught immediately. Students are grouped and regrouped fluidly to give them as much time as they need to master the most important daily and weekly material. All teachers understand the purpose behind every lesson and the standards tied to the lesson. They work together to ensure no student is left behind.
If you start with the assumption that some things are more easily learned in small groups than in large groups, then it becomes clear that organizing students into classrooms with one teacher all day long results in significantly reduced student learning compared to just about any other way of grouping teachers with students. Add to that the enormous benefits that accrue when teachers effectively collaborate with and learn from each other and the advantages of No Max School become apparent.
Given today’s ambitious learning goals, trying to reduce the complexity of teaching to a simple, daylong ratio just doesn’t work. Moving beyond the static, one-teacher classroom model offers the flexibility needed to help all of our students learn and grow. And isn’t that the point?