Class Size

classroom photo
Photo by Victor Björklund

My daughter’s school recently had a “Know Your School” night, and I heard one refrain all evening—class sizes are too big. Almost all of her teachers said something like “every desk in this class is full” or “I have over 30 students in this class.”

We have a growing teacher shortage in many places in the US, and it’s not hard to see why when you examine how teachers are treated and undervalued in this country. This teacher shortage is only one reason for large classes, which are a growing issue.

My friend Mark mentioned on Facebook earlier this year that he is teaching five classes. He has four classes with 32 students each and one class with 26 for a total of 154 students. Each time he takes up a stack of writing assignments, assuming these classes are one prep (which probably isn’t the case), he is taking up 154 writing assignments. Even if you grade pretty fast—let’s say about 15 minutes per paper (not always realistic), you’re looking at a full work week just to grade those writing assignments—38.5 hours. If you’re fast. I don’t know how he manages it, but he teaches literature and writing under those conditions.

My daughter was in an English class at the beginning of this school that had over 30 students in it. Her teacher thought she might be having difficulty, and we discussed changing her schedule. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to be in a different class. She was in an honors class, and I honestly don’t care what level she takes—I just want her to get good writing instruction. Given the size of her English class, I think I was right to be concerned. I even told her assistant principal that I just don’t know how you teach writing to classes with 30+ students.

When her schedule was changed, she was placed in a class with fewer than 20 students. I love her teacher. He is doing some great things with a group of students who are mostly “inclusion” and have IEP’s. I am fairly confident he is going to be able to do some good writing instruction with her class.

The world of independent schools, at least in my experience, looks very different. Because I am a department chair, I teach three classes rather than a full load of four—chairing the department is more work than a single prep, I can tell you. Four classes are a full load at my school, though I have worked in schools with a five-class full load. My largest class has 16 students in it. I have one class with 15 students and another with 12. I have three preps, so I probably will not be collecting writing assignments from all my students at once, but if I did, I would collect a total of 43 essays. Assuming a fast grading time of 15 minutes per student, I am looking at nearly 11 hours of grading. It’s a significant investment of time, but not a whole work week. In fact, I can typically grade writing at school and turn it around fairly fast. Because I have 43 students, I can ask my students to do a lot of writing and give them feedback on their writing. Because I have 43 students, I can accept revisions and give students feedback on revisions.

As Mark says, “Class load and class size are important.” We can’t pretend we are doing right by our students when we pack them into classrooms like sardines and don’t give them opportunities to learn to write well. I often hear my own colleagues worry about class sizes when their numbers approach 20 in a class (never mind approaching 30, which would never happen at my school). In my years of experience, I have found that 12-15 students in a class is a great number for generating thoughtful and rich discussion that allows each student to be heard while still being manageable enough to do plenty of writing. And we are doubling and sometimes tripling these numbers in most classrooms. My daughter’s school is not unique in this respect. I would argue that teaching writing is the most important aspect of an English teacher’s job. And how do we do that when we have 154 students, some of whom are gifted, some of whom need remediation, and everything else you can imagine in between?

I don’t have a solution to this problem because to resolve the issue, there are a host of related issues we need to fix as well—increasing and encouraging professionalism among teachers, treating teachers like professionals, moving away from this toxic test-based educational system we’ve become, hiring more teachers and making their classes smaller and reducing their teaching loads, and making the profession more attractive and lucrative.

Yes, it’s true, I have known teachers who don’t seek to improve their practices through professional learning (although most teachers I know are not like this). We should be encouraging professional growth. I think part of that encouragement could come if we treat teachers more like other professionals.

As much as I like my daughter’s English teacher, even he mentioned that “creative writing isn’t on the MCAS” [Massachusetts’s test]. And he’s right. But he also told me with that comment that he has to prioritize teaching the kind of writing my daughter needs to do for a test instead of the kind of writing she needs to do for life. Students should be doing writing in every genre, for multiple audiences and multiple purposes. Not only is writing important for clear communication, but it also helps us learn and process and figure out what we think. Take a look at this article if you need evidence that we need to do better writing instruction.

We just need more teachers. Mark needs a clone—at minimum one more person—to do the job he is doing by himself. At my school, 154 students would be divided among about 10 classes. We would actually have two and half people doing Mark’s job. Mark should at least be teaching only four classes instead of five. Even if they took away his smaller class of 26, he could save almost an entire day’s work grading those essays (6.5 hours), assuming the figure of 15 minutes per essay. If his classes were also capped at 25—which would give my own colleagues hives, wondering how they’d assess such a large class—he would spend 25 hours grading those essays from 100 students. Of course, 25 hours is still a large time investment, but it’s 13.5 fewer hours than he is spending with 154 students.

We might actually attract more teachers to the profession if we paid them for doing this kind of work. However, teaching has never been a well-paid profession. While I don’t like the idea of luring less capable individuals to the profession with promises of fat paychecks, I also don’t see any reason why teachers should sacrifice the ability to support their families in order to do the job they love. They should make a healthy living wage. If teachers did earn fair pay for their work, we might be able to attract and keep more teachers. As it is, we lose large numbers of young teachers in the first five years of their career. I nearly left teaching myself four years in.

Perhaps visiting my daughter’s school and listening between the lines to her teachers’ concerns about the sizes of their classes, and subsequently, their ability to effectively teach what their students need to learn and manage the learning environment well, brought these concerns into sharp relief. Our children deserve better. So do our teachers.

12 thoughts on “Class Size”

  1. Yet we have education theorists like Mark Hattie saying class size has little affect on student outcomes. And I believe in unicorns, too.

    I’m drowning in papers to grade and have a total of 89 students in four classes. But with a larger AP Lit class and 28 in my Comm 1101 class, the paper load is greater than it was last year with more students.

    I can’t imagine having Mark’s load. I hope he doesn’t burn out. It’s a risk w/ that many students.

    1. Anyone who thinks class sizes don’t matter should have to go back to a classroom and try to teach writing to 154 students. That’s what I think. I hope Mark doesn’t burn out either—he is fantastic, and it would be a loss to the profession.

  2. I am so fortunate to be in a small, new international school in Hanoi, Vietnam. I teach 11th-12th grade humanities in an American curriculum school. I have 2 AmLit classes with 10 and 12 students each; Comp. Gov. & Politics with 11, Intro to Psych with 12; and an Honors English 11-12 Research and Writing class with 7 students. I’m a 55-year-old teacher of high school students for the first time (formerly a pastor and a college lecturer and dean in Malaysia.) Over time, our high school will grow, but I’m sure we won’t ever have class sizes even near what public schools have in the US.

    Advice to younger teachers and empty nest teachers: go international if possible and if it has any appeal at all. You won’t regret it, and you may not ever want to teach in public schools again. Salaries and benefits are good, students are generally motivated to learn, parents and admin are respectful and supportive (usually)… Plus, there are English-language international schools all over the world.

    I am now re-exploring the most efficient ways to grade papers. In college classes, I used to use MS Word, Track Changes, and a special tool bar for convenient marking of common grammar and style errors. Concordia is a GAFE school, so now I use Google Docs editing and comment modes. And I’m experimenting with Screencast for verbal/visual feedback.

    What time-saving yet effective methods of feedback are other teachers using?

  3. Totally agree class size is a huge issue, maybe the biggest issue, in education today. In most public school systems it is a funding issue. Having 15 kids in a classroom instead of 30 doubles the cost of teachers. Some public schools in Georgia are now pushing 40 students in a single class in some circumstances. I don’t know how anyone in any subject teachers 160-180 kids well, let along English teachers

    1. You may be right about it being the biggest issue. I know it would cost to get class sizes down, and education never seems to be the biggest priority of any of our leaders unless it’s to further screw up the system.

  4. How about 6 classes, 3 different preps, and over 100 students? Many years I had 150-180 students in 6 classes. There comes a point when I began to resent the lost weekends reading writing that students had put no effort into.

  5. After reading this, I am nodding my head in agreement. I teach high school juniors (English), and my class load equals seven sections of the course. SEVEN! I have over 150 students. They are at a disadvantage – I can’t give them the individualized attention they need.

  6. Hi Dana,
    I’m a little late to the party here, but just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m student teaching right now, working towards my master’s and certification in secondary, and I can’t believe the class sizes at my school. In my 11th grade English class, we have 34 students and 1/3 of those students have IEPs. It is so hard (especially since I’m still learning) for my mentor teacher and I to work with each student individually–even with the two of us there. Administration, parents, and just people in general expect so much of public school teachers. But without the right resources, it’s hard for me to imagine ever meeting those expectations.

    1. I must say I am very worried about the impact class sizes are having on our students over time, especially as we are looking at potential teacher shortages and teachers are already treated poorly in many places.

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