I’ve been on the education beat for the Tribune for a little more than two years and always have found myself mystified at the conversation about keeping class sizes down in Nevada. Every teacher I talk to nowadays mentions class sizes in some capacity, yet when I do get a chance to walk into an actual classroom, I always think, “This is small compared to where I came from.”
As a former student in the public education system of Southern California, I don’t recall teachers and parents ever having made such a big deal about how many students were in the average classroom. Granted, I was young and perhaps naïve about adult conversations regarding class sizes. I was worried about more important things at the time, like getting by in those awful algebra classes, tutoring my peers in the finer points of grammar or racing to the pole that had the softest tetherball.
In the Silver State, though, most of the conversation I hear these days from Superintendent Heath Morrison, the board of trustees, principals and teachers is that we need to accommodate and individualize education for every child by keeping class sizes down as much as possible.
In my very brief research on the topic, Matthew Chingos of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government just released a paper in August about this very topic. Chingos examined Florida’s state mandate and concluded that class-size reduction has absolutely no impact on student achievement. He elaborates that although school districts claim they would be good stewards of additional resources based on their ability to operate on limited resources now, little evidence actually exists that directing money toward a specific policy like class-size reduction actually helps students cognitively in the classroom.
Cost, of course, plays a substantial role. According to Chingos, implementing such a policy in Florida by the end of the 2010-11 school year would result in no more than 18 students in prekindergarten through third grade, 22 students in fourth through eighth grade and 25 students in ninth through 12th grade. Such a policy is estimated to cost $20 billion over eight years and about $4 billion per year each year after that.
I’m not a teacher, but if Nevada never follows Florida in such a mandate I am willing to concede that a kindergarten or first grade teacher who needs to give the slow learner a little bit more time may find it difficult to give them special attention. The high school teacher might become frustrated that students aren’t performing well on their state tests, hence reflecting negatively on their own performance as an educator.
I do think, however, it’s an imperative to consider that there are many other factors that impact a child’s learning beyond the number of students in a room at one time. I grew up in class sizes of an average of 30 to 35. Was it a challenge for teachers? I’m certain it was. Did that mean the students failed? Absolutely not. I sat among some of the brightest kids I ever knew in public schools. We excelled because we were motivated, set unusually high standards for ourselves and fostered our own love for learning. I never felt handicapped by an extra five or 10 students in the classroom, though I’ll admit the occasional outburst from the jokers who just didn’t care did get annoying after a while.
It seems to me there’s a bigger problem than class size at hand. Let’s shake off the apathy among our youth, encourage them to do better and demonstrate our faith in them. If we could do that for them, then classroom size might not be such a big deal.
Jessica Garcia is the education reporter for the Sparks Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.