Considering school class sizes | Rich Elfers

How big should your child’s class size be? According to state Initiative 1351, which barely passed recently, smaller is better. It seems to be common sense: the fewer the children, the easier it is for teachers to do their jobs. Fewer students mean fewer disruptions and more teacher contact time.

But is this assumption really backed by facts? Not according to Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book, “David and Goliath.” His assertions have created a controversy in academia.

Gladwell, also author of popular books such as “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Outlier,” states: “A smaller classroom only translates to a better outcome if teachers change their teaching style when given a lower workload. Evidence suggests that teachers don’t necessarily do that.”

Having taught high school level social studies now for nearly 40 years, I find his argument provocative. I taught classes with numbers as high as 32 and as low as seven. I believe there is truth to his assertions.

Gladwell argues having many students makes the job of teaching more difficult in terms of discipline and papers to correct. That is true. Having few students means fewer discipline issues and less work outside the classroom. That’s also true. Gladwell asserts there is a sweet spot between too many and too few students.

My experience in teaching high school students found the ideal size to be between 24 and 26 students per class. There is certainly a tipping point in terms of class dynamics when that magic number is passed in American schools. Maintaining order and focus is more difficult with an extra two or three more.

I have found that smaller class sizes lose a certain dynamic in discussions. There are not as many differences in opinion and since fewer students are there to support a quieter student’s views, there is less chance that student will speak up. A quiet student needs greater numbers to give them confidence to know that their views have validity.

Larger class sizes have a different dynamic during discussions. The more students in class, the more opinions and attitudes are likely to vary. There is more likelihood that student comments and perceptions will create sparks.

Those who favor smaller class sizes point to elite schools where numbers range between 10 and 12. Gladwell counters this argument by stating: “Wealthy people, and wealthy institutions, and wealthy nations – all Goliaths – too often fall into (error): the school assumes that the kind of things that wealth can buy all translate into real world advantages.”

Just because the rich can afford to send their children to private schools does not automatically mean students will be getting a better education. These are assumptions that may not bear the light of critical analysis.

There are other factors that we in America often are not aware of. I’ve visited high schools in Japan where the average class size is closer to 40. Teachers seem to be able to maintain order because the culture is different. There is respect for teachers in the culture because of the influence of Confucianism.

I currently teach classes in high school completion at a nearby college with mainly international (Asian) students. Maintaining order is not even much of an issue there. Of course, correcting papers with larger class sizes remains the same, with the additional burden that English is their second language.

Whatever the answer to the right class size, Gladwell stirred up a lot of controversy. The passing of Initiative 1351 in this state needs to have its assumptions carefully researched. Smaller class sizes mean greater cost to the taxpayers of the state. The question that has not been answered is whether that unfunded mandate will give us the bang for the buck the majority hoped for.