Many medium and large school districts in Kansas are likely to have larger student-to-teacher ratios this fall. With most of school operating expenses going to salaries, budget cuts leave school administrators with few options. Reportedly, a few districts notified all non-tenured staff they will not be rehired, but hope to rehire if it becomes possible. Across Kansas, it appears that the number of teachers, aides, and paras ‘released’ could be substantial.
The Legislative budget that drew down base state aid per pupil from $4433 to $4400 last year, and then dropped to $4280 for next year, was based on an optimistic budget. Kansas tax revenues in May were dramatically less than predicted—about 60 percent compared to revenue in May 2008! In this balanced-budget state, the Governor will have to cut expenditures further. Schools will not know how much money they will have until his decision in early July when another month of tax revenues are known.
For middle and large-sized school districts, bigger average class sizes are inevitable. Data at last week’s State Board of Education meeting showed a sharp decrease in secondary teacher shortages due to alternate route teachers and to a contraction in hiring. Larger districts can save a faculty salary line by reducing from six teachers to just five in a field, if they increase class sizes from 20-24 to 30.
That poses the question: what is the best size for a class?
I have returned from another lecture tour in China. I often visit their public school classrooms where the class minimum is 60 students! This is due, not to a lack of funding, but to a lack of qualified teachers. Their classes of 60 students are well behaved and hard working. Their culture is different. There is great respect for teachers. And there is great responsibility on the shoulders of an only child who is ultimately responsible for the “social security” of two parents and four grandparents. Their system works because each student knows that if he or she does not work hard, but causes any disruption, there is another student ready to take his or her place who will work hard and pay attention. I would never suggest that one American teacher could handle 60 American students in one class. We come from a different history. But we can move toward slightly larger classes.
There is research that in elementary classrooms, smaller class sizes do give the teacher more time to provide individualized attention to children. However, as we move into middle and high school levels and shift away from basic math and reading skill classes, there is no significant research that supports smaller classes always providing better outcomes. (Maintaining discipline in a school with unruly students is a separate issue.)
The question is: how many students are too many for involvement in classroom discussion and teacher interaction? A teacher can read eyes and faces in the first five to six seats in a row; that means of classroom of 30–36 students. With more students than that, a teacher has difficulty detecting who is following the topic, who understands, and who doesn’t. A student further back than six seats is less likely to be involved in classroom discussions. And the higher the number, the lower the percent of time each student gets for participation and interaction.
In the 1980s, my secondary student teachers often had class loads of about 150 students per year; about six thousand students per 40-year career. Today, most of my student teachers will take positions where they teach fewer than 100 students per year, over one-third less “production” per career.
Yes, students have changed. So have the burdens and responsibilities of teachers. Yet America’s production of scientists and Nobel prizewinners from those earlier large-class days was greater than international test comparisons suggest we are achieving today. If students demonstrate responsibility in learning, and schools back off the non-teaching burdens and provide adequate teaching materials, there is no reason that the looming modest increase in class size is a disaster.