Friday, September 18, 2009

Your kid's Spanish class probably has 40 students and LaVarr Webb thinks that is too small

Hello. I’ll start with a quick update on my blogging or lack there of--I think about the issues daily and have a ton of posts semi-written in my head about current education topics and other issues dating back to the legislative session. I’d love to post daily or even weekly, but the reality is that I will likely be blogging in spurts for the near future rather than on any sort of set schedule. I hope to get in 10 posts or so in a spurt the next few weeks, and would like to do a belated 2009 Legislative Report Card as rated by me. I’m going to try that for December, in time to digest the information before some issues are continued in the 2010 session and the budget situation forces even more drastic cuts.

It’s the beginning of the school year, and I thought I’d again present the reality of class sizes as conveniently ignored by both the Utah State Office of Education and the legislature in one of their rare collaborative ventures. The last official stat I saw bandied around was 22.5 students per class on average for the 08-09 school year. Maybe K-2 was close to achieving that…I don’t have hard evidence, but anecdotal claims say that was too pie-in-the-sky for even the early grades. I know later elementary classes are not that small, and I definitely know what’s happening at my school.

I work at a junior high in Alpine District, one of the larger districts with more financial cushion than the smaller districts. I teach a “core” subject, meaning one of the subjects with an end-of-year CRT test that counts towards the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standard that determines if we are labeled a “failing school” under the No Child Left Behind law. Core subjects are often “protected” somewhat with class sizes smaller than elective classes. I averaged 32 students per class last year (08-09) and had to get extra desks for the classes larger than that.

This year (09-10), excluding one special non-core class for students who need extra assistance, my average class size is 33.4. For the first time in my career, I have some students seated in chairs in the back at tables because I don’t have room for any more desks. The classes of all core subjects at the school are averaging about the same, and the elective classes are averaging 38-42 students per class. Other secondary schools in the district are facing similar numbers. There are local claims that class size is an unimportant factor in learning, but I firmly believe otherwise. Everything in a larger class takes more time and less material can be covered, classroom discipline—a means to the end of learning—is worse, one-on-one teacher/student time decreases, and the workload is increased for the teacher. That affects the amount of involved assignments and home work that can be given, again decreasing the amount of material covered and practice of that material.

Larger class sizes decrease the effectiveness of good teachers and exaggerate the flaws of bad teachers. I believe all arguments to the effect that large class sizes don’t matter fall flat when confronted by any parent. Does any parent of any student, whether the brightest gifted student or a struggling child achieving below grade level, think their student will do just as well in a class of 35 as in a class of 25? I would speculate that 95% or more of parents would tell you otherwise. I don't want my children to attend school in classes of that size.

With that said, I know we cannot avoid further cuts in education funding next year with the budget crunch pain coming. I am personally and sincerely grateful for the quality work done by the legislature this past session in terms of balancing the budget under difficult circumstances. Even more difficult choices will have to be made in the 2010 session. Many smaller districts did not rehire their first, second, and third year teachers this year, and I think Alpine will likely follow suit to some degree next year, again increasing class sizes. Our school could lose up to three teacher FTE’s next year under current projections—meaning 100 or more students would have to be redistributed each period, increasing the class size of the teachers who remain.

However, when it comes down to drastic measures, I would strongly favor reasonable cuts in teacher pay—reasonable and temporary cuts—before mass layoffs and even larger class sizes. I know many teachers would argue that is a bad precedent to set, but packing classes more and more full when they’re already averaging more than 30 students per class from late elementary school on is even worse. Oversized classes do not benefit the students or the profession. I can rearrange my finances for a couple years more easily than I can overcome the laws of physics and give personal attention to more than one kid at a time.

But when LaVarr Webb, lobbyist and Republican mouthpiece, advocates “boost[ing] public-education class sizes dramatically, “force[ing]” many public school classes to be online, and “an aggressive voucher program… saving billions over the long term,” realize that all savings from these approaches can only come on the backs of our kids. The massive savings would only come by packing our students into “dramatically” larger classes (larger than 33, not 22.5), putting instruction online and paying someone low wages to oversee students working on the computers, and by closing public schools to fund private school vouchers.

Hard times are here and cuts are coming, but don’t let anti-public education voices use them as an excuse to push a destructive agenda.



Jesse Harris said...

Don't be too quick to knock online programs. They certainly can't be a fix-all (no solution is), but I read a study recently that students in online schools outperformed their classroom counterparts. Granted, we don't know what type of student was in the online program (I'm guessing the brighter self-starters, but that's just my gut), but we certainly shouldn't rule out self-learning options as a way to create larger class sizes without sacrificing quality.

Cameron said...

Hmmm. I wonder what he means by boost class sizes? Is it simply to force alternative ways to teach, ie online courses and the like? Or is he really advocating just raising the class size period, as a means to save money? If it's the latter, that doesn't seem very wise.

Welcome back, by the way.

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Jesse,

I'm not knocking online learning exactly, but I believe it is an excellent supplement to a good teacher in K-12 settings rather than a way to have larger classes with equal quality. Even at the MTC with highly motivated learners in small classes and a unique environment, you will hear horror stories from some missionaries who just found the computer part of the language training too monotonous and non-meaningful. (I don't agree, but attitudes, personality, capacity, etc. just differ widely.) I don't believe you can stick the majority of K-12 students on a computer and expect them to learn a scripted curriculum autonomously for hours. Some, yes; most, no.

I read that study. I got it from Lisa Schenker on that Trib education blog, but she didn't read more than the first line. We do know who most of the subjects were--adults in higher education, med school, trade schools, etc. Here's the link to the study:

And here's a quote from the beginning of the study. From pg. 11, or pg. ix 1st pg. of abstract:
"In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education)."

I think you can probably assume many of those participants in voluntary programs were highly motivated, self-starters as you say.

The actual conclusion of this meta-study was that effective online resources combined with good classroom instruction was the most effective learning method (e.g. the MTC language program), but that online worked as well or better in many cases than face-to-face instruction in various settings for mostly adults. Being a meta-study, there were individual studies within the overall study that contradicted the majority.

Hi Cameron,
If you read the article, Webb and Piganelli are discussing Herbert's budget commission and the topic is exclusively saving money. Piganelli made some interesting comments on local medicare use by college students with affluent families that I'm still trying to decide what I think of--having relatives who have been exactly in that situation--and then Webb said that was useless moralizing, and suggested major cuts including the education ones I highlighted.

I probably won't be able to get back to this until late tomorrow night, but I have some other interesting and puzzling technology posts coming Jesse. Effectively integrating tech into education is a work in progress I guess.