School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money. Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.
Moreover, for top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.
Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.
We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.
I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials, we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.
This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students. The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.
And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.
What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials. 30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.
With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.
I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day. But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula, consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.