“Small Class Size” Is a Misguided Fetish

“I believe in small class size,” said the politician. All the parents and teachers nodded.

Small class: good. Large class: bad, right? No, actually. 
Class size is not the most important variable in the quality of education. The quality of education is a function of the quality of the relationship with the teacher and the teacher’s ability to increase the incidence of collaboration, creativity and contribution among the students.

Here’s an example: at a public school in Oakland, California, 24 eighth graders, seated four-to-a-table, are talking with great animation about the algebra problems in front of them. Matt Ronfeldt, the teacher, is moving among the tables with a clipboard. Fifteen minutes before they break for lunch, Matt says, “Great work everyone. I was thrilled with how you were working together. Here’s some feedback for you.

“Mikaela, you exercised leadership when you asked, ‘Wait. What are we solving for?’

“Danielle, remember when you stopped arguing and just wrote down what you thought the answer was and slipped it across the table to the others? Notice how that shifted the conversation?

“Taharka, three times I saw you take someone else’s idea and build on it.

“Table 4, I love how you each seemed to know when to speak and when to listen.

“Okay, close your eyes for a minute. Go back over the last half hour, think of how you worked together. Remember leadership moments. [pause] Okay, think of who did the most listening. [pause] Are there any observations you would like to make?”

Schools are good places to grow intelligence because of their high social potential. - Rick AckerlyResearch now confirms what kids have always known; i.e. that “social-emotional learning” is critical. It’s also highly cognitive: leadership, collaboration, mattering to your group: you have to use your brain and think creatively. The students are learning algebra; Matt is teaching leadership, collaboration, creativity and the joy of making a difference to others. Everyone is a leader at one time or another, and learning is a joy not a chore.

Can we teach social responsibility and academics at the same time? Yes. In fact, we must. Teaching social responsibility as a separate subject is, to kids, a joke. It’s like teaching an artist to paint by the numbers. Eighth graders have been building their social brains for over 100,000 hours before they walk into their first algebra class. They know their happiness depends on their social skills. We know that their success does, too.

There are two drivers for small class size: 1) parental anxiety about the “individual attention” their child will get when they leave all that parental attention they’ve been getting at home, and 2) teachers whose work increases as the number of students in the class increases.

But the quality of the education in any group of people is not a function of the size of the group—or the texts, or tests, or technology, or standards, for that matter. It depends on the quality of the delivery system, and the delivery system for education is culture. The culture of the group does the educating. The culture that Matt Ronfeldt created in his 8th grade algebra class of 24 students is the kind of culture our kids will find at any good college, the kind we want our kids to create for themselves when they get to high school, and the kind of businesses, families, communities we all want to live in.

Should classes have 30 students in them? Maybe, not, but classes of 10-12 students are too small. Besides, how can we pay our teachers more, if they are only going to be responsible for a few kids? Class size of 18 to 24 are a good compromise, and let’s keep our eye on the right ball: the quality of the culture a teacher creates.

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