In our discussion over whether 25 or 40 students per teacher is the ideal ratio, we’ve mostly overlooked a more fundamental question: What do we want our kids to learn?
I think it’s helpful to consider our goals for what we expect students to be able to do, create a rich curriculum that will produce students who can meet those goals, and then consider whether our class sizes allow teachers to deliver that curriculum and support students in achieving those goals.
Debating whether it is possible to teach 20 versus 40 kids without reference to curriculum misses the point. Teachers can work with 20 kids in a class and they can work with 40, but the higher number is going to force changes to their lessons and have an adverse affect on their ability to teach a rigorous curriculum.
For example, if our goal is simply for students to be able to store factual information over a short period of time and recognize the correct answer on a standardized bubble test, then do we need small class sizes for that? Maybe not. We could probably pack students into a classroom, have lessons consist largely of lectures and make the students responsible for retaining the information long enough to score well on a standardized test. If this is the extent of our expectation for kids’ learning outcome, then online learning is arguably a more efficient means to that end.
But are these types of students that employers want and that our democratic society needs? People who were able to identify Henry IV as the person who said, “Paris is worth a mass” as a 10th grader?
Most job requirements I’ve seen seek people with effective writing and communication skills, people who can analyze and synthesize information from various sources, people who can learn to work with various software, people who can prioritize projects and work well in group settings, people who can set and meet short- and long-term goals, etc. Our democracy depends on citizens being able to understand the complexity of our system of government and the interconnected nature of the problems our society faces, in addition to being able to read diverse media for information while taking into account sources’ points of view and partisan bias. Our curriculum should be structured toward achieving these goals (and our standardized tests should measure for them, as opposed to rote memorization and the identification of correct answers from a menu of options). If we agree that this is a worthy goal for our students, then we should consider what student-to-teacher ratio will help us achieve this goal.
Experienced teachers can deliver a curriculum rich in skill development and factual information with larger class sizes, but they can do a lot more with smaller ones. In my experience, putting my lectures online for students to watch at home so I can focus our time in class on writing skills, documentary analysis and class discussions (aka “flipping the classroom”) allows me to develop my students’ academic skills while ensuring that they know which names, dates, details, etc., they need to commit to memory.
There’s no way around grading papers, though. While experienced teachers may develop strategies for making the essay-grading process more efficient while maintaining their educational value, higher class sizes will limit a teacher’s ability to incorporate essay review into their curriculum.
Ideally, students would benefit from their teachers’ guidance across multiple drafts of the same paper, but again, sheer numbers make it unfeasible. If I give an essay to all my classes at once, I’ll have 165 papers to grade. Even if I were to boil the grading process down to a minute per paper, I would be grading for over 2 ½ hours (two minutes per paper means over five hours of grading). Multiple drafts over a short period of time for large classes means that I would be have carve out five-hour slots, multiple times a week, solely to grade papers. As a result, I’d end up spending less time grading quizzes, planning and revising lessons, meeting with other teachers, communicating with parents, counseling students and continuing to learn about the subjects I teach. So while frequent essay projects involving multiple drafts and feedback would be beneficial in having students progress toward worthy educational goals, higher class sizes often limit my essays to exams.
My colleagues and I could simply do more with fewer students. It’s not that we want to work less. On the contrary, we work to deliver a curriculum that goes above and beyond what state assessments require and that will produce students with skills that will make them valuable members of the workforce and responsible members of society. We are better able to achieve these goals with smaller class sizes.
I hope you’ll weigh in: What do you think our students should learn and be able to do after a completing a subject/grade? What do you think an appropriate student-to-teacher ratio would be to achieve that goal?