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Smaller Classes for a Better Report Card

Our national public schools received their report card for 2017—will failing grades lead to real change?

In April, the 2017 results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. Students in the 4th and 8th grades across the nation were tested in Mathematics and Reading. The scores are disheartening and, yet, exactly what you’d expect. Breakdowns of the data, and the ability to create your own reports, can be found at the NEAP website.

Against the backdrop of these scores, how do we as a nation address the problems of our national school system? Teachers in Arizona are, as of this writing, still striking for better pay. Teachers in Kentucky recently staged walk-outs in protest of changes to the commonwealth’s failing pension plan. Across the country, from tiny rural districts to sprawling urban campuses, schools are fighting for more money, more teachers, more classrooms, more enrichment programs, in short: more.

Speak to any of the teachers in your life, in your neighborhoods, at your churches, or at those contentious school board hearings, and they will have a constant refrain: our classrooms are too crowded. Even in rural districts you will find kindergarten classrooms with 20 or more students and 3rd grade classrooms with more than 25. This is because many rural districts consolidated school systems to save on building costs. Now, children from across the county are bused to a single elementary school, middle school, or high school. So, districts with over-all declining populations still have teacher to student classroom ratios of 25 to 1. The numbers are higher for suburban and urban districts.

Don’t think, either, that school rating sites or even district publications show your local schools are less crowded. The teacher to student ratio is often padded by averaging special education or enrichment classrooms with general education classrooms. Administrators and even “testing aides” are added to numbers in some districts. To add to the confusion, districts will report average class size in addition to the teacher to student ratio. Average class size is supposed to be a clearer picture of what students and teachers encounter on a daily basis.

Why does class size matter? Children learn at different speeds. Also, individual children learn different concepts at different speeds. The child who quickly grasps the difference between area and volume may not understand how to rhyme. A teacher in a class with 20 students may be able to see that child’s struggles whereas the child in a classroom of 30 or more is lost in the crowd. When test time comes, the difference between a failing or passing grade for that student can be measured in the number of minutes the teacher had to properly explain the concept in terms he or she understood.

My family recently chose, as more and more American families are, to homeschool our children. The change in performance I’ve seen in the past year for my youngest son has been phenomenal. A bright, inquisitive child, he was destined for remedial math courses the rest of his middle and high school career because how he learns mathematics doesn’t translate well to a room full of pre-teens. He needs direct instruction, hands-on examples, and (because of his disabilities) constant reinforcement of basic arithmetic. Higher order, theoretical concepts comes easily to him, despite his abysmal multiplication skills. In a homeschool environment (I want to take this opportunity to plug one of my favorite education sites: Khan Academy), he receives the reinforcement he needs at a pace that stimulates his natural curiosity.

Such direct one-on-one instruction is simply not possible in a public school, even in one with an ideal class size. But, the larger a classroom is, the bigger the achievement gap. Data collected and analyzed by the Center for Public Education found that the ideal K-3rd class size was 18 students. This may be an impossible goal for inner-city districts or suburban areas with booming populations, but each incremental advancement toward that goal should yield positive results. If a school’s fourth grade population is 120 students, hiring five rather than four teachers for the 4th grade cuts the class size by 4 students for each class. That represents an additional thirty seconds that can be allocated to each student during an hour’s lesson. Hire two teachers (and have a school big enough to accommodate 6 classrooms for each grade), and the class size drops to 20—very near that magical goal of 18.

Not every family can homeschool. Not every child needs direct instruction. Not every student will do better with a bit more attention. But, in this game of improvement by degree, every little bit helps. The change to our NAEP scores may not be the huge passing grade we hope for, but the change to an individual child’s life will be profound. Just ask my youngest, the one-grade-level-behind-standard student of mathematics. He completed the Khan Academy 6th grade math curriculum, at mastery level, before his 6th grade year is finished. He will be moving on to pre-Algebra next year, right on track by state and national standards.

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