Today I’ve been reading the stories about Mitt Romney’s comments that class sizes don’t matter in how well students do in school, and I’m turning the keyboard over to an experienced high school teacher, Mrs. Gary of Austin. Here’s what she has to say:
There are many variables in a classroom, all of which affect student performance.
First, there is the condition of the student himself or herself: Has he or she had a good breakfast? A good night’s sleep? A fight with the parents/guardians? A fight with the girlfriend/boyfriend?
Then, there are the conditions under which the student has studied to prepare for the day. Was there a quiet place with good lighting, no distractions, and ample time to finish the assignments? Did the parents/guardians and other family members respect the student’s need for time and quiet to focus on schoolwork? What else was happening in the home while the student was trying to do homework?
All of these things take place outside the classroom, and all of them affect what happens inside the classroom. None of them have anything to do with individual student capability. A Math genius who has to take care of her baby sister because her mother is working the night shift might be too tired to perform well in class—or on that all-important exam. A student who has to help his father in the family business every night until closing time might fall asleep over his History homework—because he saved his favorite subject for last.
In these situations, and in many others, a teacher with a smaller class size is more able to give individual attention to his/her students and help them over the rougher spots of their educational life so that they can attain their full potential. A teacher with a larger class size may be so overwhelmed by the multiple students needing attention that he/she gives up on the “problem kids” and just focuses on the “good kids,” the ones who consistently perform well in the classroom.
These “good kids” would probably do as well in a small classroom as in a large classroom. Having learned how to achieve high grades, they will continue to study well, and they will complete their education well. So some folks, like Mr. Romney, or the authors of the Harvard study he cited, might say that class size doesn’t matter. Cream will rise to the top, no matter where it is found.
But smaller class sizes allow the teacher to focus on everyone, including the “problem kids.” Smaller class sizes allow “problem kids” to have more attention and help from their teachers and their school administrators in overcoming their problems. Instead of just slapping a failing grade on a paper, for example, the teacher can explain why and how the assignment failed and guide the student to success on the next assignment. That is possible only when the teacher has a manageable number of papers to grade and a manageable number of students to guide.
Even sassy troublemakers who lead their friends into mischievous pranks can succeed academically if the teachers and the administrators are on their side. Surely Mr. Romney ought to know that.