Unpacking the Learning – Part 4

Class Sizes


There is a known phenomenon that occurs when you cram too many people into a small space.  It gets crowded, uncomfortable, and makes it hard to breathe.

“Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate.” Words to the wise from a student who participated…”People at the bottom were really laboring to breathe.” More info here click link

The same outcome occurs when you cram too many young people into a small learning space and think its okay. Psychological studies have indicated that overcrowding can cause chronic stress, increased irritability and aggression, as well as lack of privacy which can lead to depression. While most studies examine living conditions, one could make an argument that classroom cramming can also have negative effects.

No one knows the magic number when it comes to determining the optimal amount of students in any given learning environment. In most schools, this determination is usually based on a district’s yearly budget. There are so few studies on this topic, more than likely due to the budget implications, so we just accept the status quo.  Even when the mid 1980 STAR studies (pg 92-93 in Learning Unleashed) did demonstrate a strong correlation between smaller class sizes and student performance results, it was not embraced by most schools around the country.

From a parent and teacher perspective, a small class means more attention for all students, especially those who may need more support. Having fewer students offers a multitude of student learning benefits that are absent in larger classes. At least in some states, legislators have decided that younger children may need more attention and therefore they provide funding for smaller class sizes in the early years. Wisdom occasionally surfaces at the legislative level.

The large class conundrum forces teachers to employ various “behavior management” techniques in order to keep the classroom running smoothly. Bribery tactics and coercion are in full force to maintain calm and ease any distractions. Children are programmed early on to know and understand that they are “good students” if they accept the bribery du jour and adhere to the coercion efforts.

In my book, Learning Unleashed – Reimagining and Repurposing Our Schools,  I propose class sizes of around 15 students. I am sure that any school board member, superintendent, or district office manager knows this is next to impossible. I thought this when I was an assistant superintendent.  On the surface, and given the budget constraints, it is impossible within our current schemata of school.

The costs of running a school district are staggering. Most of those costs are regulated by unfunded or far less than fully funded mandates. Our federal and state legislators continue to write laws that place extraordinary burdens on the average school system. Money that is allocated is earmarked for specific purposes leaving a school district’s hands tied.

A good example is the federal Title I dollars that schools scramble to spend before the imposed deadline. The federal guidelines strictly states that it cannot supplant programs the district normally operates within their own budget. The allocated funding can only supplement these programs. It also outlines specific ways in which this funding can be spent. There is little choice for local school districts.  Elected officials continue to dictate what they believe is best for our schools and our students.

In addition, certain school programs have exorbitant and sometimes unknown expenses that the district must absorb. Yearly school budget proposals are developed to plan for the worse case scenario while the district waits and hopes for the best. Therefore, local schools are left with a constant leaking faucet, often forcing them to make the most cost effective decisions rather than more learning effective ones.

The “seeing is believing” phenomenon is another drawback which proves an even larger impediment to changing anything in schools. Trying something different or new is often seen as a waste of time. It is easy to understand why school folks are less than enthusiastic with new initiatives since they tend to surface about every five years or so accompanied by a sometimes painful training process. It is important to note that most of these changes have little to do with the basic structure of schooling. That is an untouchable.

Credit to Tom Guskey below.Guskey innov

Within public schools, the best we can hope for is to stay afloat while ever-increasing external demands suck the life and joy out of real, individualized and authentic learning for every school aged young person.

In the perfect world of anytime, anywhere learning where parents and children chart their own journey, attending a public school becomes a choice not a mandate.

For those of you who hate to read long blogs, I apologize now. For those of you who don’t mind reading on here is how this might play out on any given school day. Cost savings are noted with an asterisk. *

  • Students are not assigned to teachers. Teachers are chosen by parents and students for their coaching/content expertise and rapport with children.
  • Teachers are not solely evaluated by the school district but included is an effectiveness rating from their clientele (former and current students and parents). High stakes test results are not used to evaluate teachers.*
  • Teachers provide an online presence to families that include but is not limited to the following: educational philosophy, copy of credentials, professional resume, samples of successful school projects, informal student performance data, etc.
  • Teachers who do not have a track record of success via district, parent/student evaluation are then offered support by the district. If support has not improved agreed upon results within an agreed upon time frame, then teachers are terminated. Teachers agree to this process when hired.*
  • Teachers work in teams to carry the daily case load of up to 15-20 students each but can work with as many as 60-70 students a day depending upon age level as they rotate among the team of teachers.
  • Newer teachers are paired with seasoned teachers.*
  • Students are not assigned letter or number grades which allows the teacher more direct contact with students.  For the Love of Learning – Not grading – click here Students self evaluate at regular intervals.*
  • Parent conferences are scheduled at regular intervals as needed.
  • Students stay with this team of teachers for at least four years unless parents choose other educational alternatives or teachers change. Students are not grouped in grade levels.*
  • Teachers utilize the non-student contact hours (remember from my previous blog there are shorter hours that students attend school) for professional development (PD) that suits their particular need not a district mandated in-service, except those required by law. Teachers share their learning with their team. They may also choose to record their PD efforts and subsequent change of practice or enhancement to their practices on their websites as reflection or to provide updates. *

This scenario empowers the families, students and teachers by creating the conditions for more ownership, personalized learning, and academic growth. It also assumes that our current school system structures are re-purposed to accommodate this model. For those of you wondering how this could ever happen in a public school,  please read further.

When you empower teachers with built in accountability, there is less need for management or an elaborate evaluation process. There is also less need for teacher unions. When you trust the teachers you have hired, there is less need for oversight and control. When you offer your community a proven commitment to ensure that student learning is your top priority, there is more likelihood of continued success.

Over time a district hires less managers (district and school level) and more teachers as the priority shifts. A district pays less for PD and costly data management systems as well as the central office staff to plan and implement.

We tend to think that new and shiny buildings equate to a better learning environment with smarter and happier children who will then perform better on tests. Learning can happen anywhere at anytime so there is less need to build newer and more expensive schools. Maintaining current buildings is costly enough. Utilizing partnership facilities such as the local library, community centers, religious facilities, or community colleges opens up a whole world of possibilities.

This type of school can exist in the publicly funded version of schooling but it would take some time to convert all the skeptics and to pry ourselves loose of crippling regulations. It would require out-of-the-box thinking, something very foreign in school systems.  In addition, we must stop spewing our arrogant notion that parents are not educators, have not been formally trained, and therefore can’t possibly know what’s educationally best for their child. Unfortunately, we have convinced them of that. Parents as partners must become more than just a catch phrase or school PTA slogan.

We have to embrace a new kind of thinking where schooling no longer exists to educate the masses for the work world that awaits them. The work world has changed and so should schools. For it to survive, it must totally transform itself – now.

For those who can’t wait any longer, you might try other options like homeschooling, co-ops, Sudbury, a good charter school or democratic/progressive schools. Sadly, many of us just wait and hope.

The bottom line – public schools must change or be left behind.  In their present state, they are grossly out of touch with the new kind of learner and forever doomed to the lowest common denominator mentality. Forced grade level curriculum, a massive obsession for testing, and the need to rank, sort, and compare students, teachers and their schools guarantee this result.

“I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.” – John W. Gardner





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