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Guest blogger Ashley Hermsmeier is a teacher, runner and writer in her sixth year of teaching English at El Capitan High School in Lakeside. In her blog titled “I Run Because I Teach” she discusses the two aspects of life that simultaneously give her enjoyment and frustration: teaching and running. Here she takes on the topic of class sizes. These are her reflections and opinions, not mine, so if you have burning questions or comments, please contact Ashley via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or post a comment here on the blog.
Last month our school played host to exchange students from Australia. The No. 1 question I heard from multiple exchange students was, “Why are the classes here so big?” The only answer I could up with was, “Wrong priorities.” They were surprised by our large classes — some with more than 40 students — because in Australia the average class has 24 students.
In college I thought, “What’s the big deal? If teachers can teach 20 kids, what’s 20 more?” Oh, the ignorance. The questions of the Australian students got me asking some of my own. I decided to do a little research into class sizes around the world and how they stack up against ours. But before I get to the numbers, I’d like to take you inside the 40-student classroom for a while, just in case you think as I did, “What’s the big deal?”
The average 52-minute period with 35 to 40 students becomes a lecture-based class with limited discussion. The air quickly becomes stuffy and hot because of all the warm breathing bodies packed tightly into narrow rows and cramped desk space. Many students slump in their chairs and avoid eye contact with the teacher for fear of being called on in front of so many other peers. In larger classes it’s easy for students to shrink from public accountability, to slip through the cracks, to be left behind.
With so many students in one room, the teacher’s focus falls more on classroom management issues than creative teaching techniques. The larger the class size, the harder it is to control activities like group work, simulations and class discussions, so typically these are the first things to get cut from lesson plans. It’s not to say these activities don’t happen occasionally, but to do them every day leads to burnout — the No. 1 reason teachers stop teaching.
An argument out there says unless class sizes drop below 17, student achievement does not increase. But there are also studies that say once a class goes over the 30-student mark it breaks down into social circles and the students control the classroom climate more easily. Class becomes a social venue, not a learning venue. Whether 17 is the magic number or not, I can’t say, but I do know that the smaller the class size, the more easily a teacher can identify struggling students and give them the attention they may need.
So how do we stack up against other countries as far as class size is concerned? I was surprised. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as cited by the New York Times, we have the same average class size as Germany, Spain, Poland, France, and… Australia: 24.3 students. Interesting, considering what the students and teachers from Australia said about our class sizes. The worldwide average is 23.9.
This may be the national average, but it’s not for many San Diego classrooms. In the Grossmont District, our class cap is 36, but in reality many teachers have closer to 38 or 39. More than one of my colleagues has 41 students. These numbers are very similar in other districts around San Diego County. For example, I spoke with a colleague from Torrey Pines High School who has 43 students in a class!
I can feel a general concern from the community in San Diego about crowded classrooms, but I don’t feel a sense of urgency. And I get it — with our current economy we have bigger issues to worry about.
However, I am concerned with the general direction this will take our education system if more attention isn’t paid to the problem. This is the sort of issue where the negative effects of overcrowded classrooms won’t show up for years — and by then it’s too late. Since I started teaching six years ago, the class size cap has gone up one or two students every year. For some teachers it’s become the equivalent of teaching another whole class. If this trend doesn’t end, we’ll need to hold class in stadiums and theaters.
It all comes down to priorities. If we San Diegans feel that smaller classes are beneficial for the students, their ability to learn and to feel safe in the classroom, then we need to find a way to make it a top priority, because it’s becoming a popular strategy in many San Diego districts to save money by raising the class caps.
— ASHLEY HERMSMEIER