Impacts that I see of larger class sizes

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 08:07

When I started teaching in the early 1990’s, I averaged 22–24 students per science class, 4 classes per day (96 in a day). The average now in middle schools in my district is 31–34 students per science class (136 in a day). I have friends in other middle schools who have 36–38 in their science classes. One friend who teaches high school history has 38 students in his classes 5 classes per day is 190 students in a day! Gifted and AP (Advanced Placement) classes used to have ceilings for how many students could be in the class in the range of 17-20, which provided opportunities for teachers to give more individualized instruction. But, in many school systems, those caps have been removed, and classes have upwards of 30–34 students. The increased numbers has impacted how teachers teach and the learning that occurs.


Why the changes? That’s fairly simple to answer—class sizes have increased because of budget shortages and cuts in funds allotted for teachers’ salaries. On paper, it’s simple math—the same numbers of students with fewer teachers (cost savings) equals more students per teacher. But the impacts of increased class sizes aren’t a math problem and they aren’t simple.


I have heard the debates. I have seen that “research says” fewer than 15 students is the optimum number in a class. And I’ve heard it said that once over 15, the number of students in a classroom really doesn’t matter, because a “good” teacher will be able to teach them. But rather than go into “what research says,” I can only share my own personal experiences with increased class sizes.


For me, increased class sizes forced me to change how I approach teaching in order to fulfill basic curriculum requirements and maintain my health. With 24 students, I used to do more science labs, and regularly assigned projects that required kids to present their results in front of the class. Grading presentations and project submitted takes more time, usually at home. With 96 students a day years ago, if I took 3 minutes to grade a project (really need more time but I am grading at home) that is 288 minutes (4 hours 48 minutes). Increase my daily number of students to 136 students at 3 minutes per project, my time grading this single assignment goes up to 408 minutes (6 hours and 48 minutes).  Add to this one project, homework, tests, and classwork, larger class size it adds hours away from family and friends to grade. Teachers need a balanced life so something changes, how we teach and grade.


With increased class sizes, too, there are more behavior issues. When kids are packed into rooms, they are, by default, closer in physical proximity to each other, which makes for increased talking. With smaller classes, it is easier to manage the one or two behaviorally challenged student(s). With more children, there are more disruptors in closer proximity so the odds of the occasional major “disruptor” also increases.
The added energy I must expend just to manage my class frankly wears me out. I go home more tired than I used to. The more kids I have to monitor every period each day, the more discipline issues I have to deal with, the more papers I have to grade, the more parent contacts I have to make to discuss discipline and academic issues. I am exhausted when I go home, to the point that I don’t have the energy for my family and personal activities I treasure.


On top of the impacts of larger class size, there is another phenomenon that concerns me. This may sound odd, but the fact that the “high stakes test scores” have risen in in many states the last five to 8 years, even as class sizes increase. Higher test scores are a good thing, but the part that scares me is the fact that, lacking information or judgment about what constitutes “learning,” the majority of legislators see the rise in scores and justify their budget cuts. In their minds, see that that larger class sizes have no impact on learning, so there is no need to restore the budgets that were slashed in the great recession that began in 2008. Officials see that schools are doing “better with the smaller budgets.” What’s actually happening is teachers are getting better at preparing students for the high stakes tests. Teachers know that school rankings, increasingly more see their pay tied to test scores, and parents/legislators/businesses want to be ‘number one’ in the rankings so they do what is necessary to satisfy the leaders and customers of the schools. The focus on tests is another topic, addressed another day.


Teachers are professionals.  Teachers are dedicated. Teachers are over-achievers. As dedicated professionals, we upped our efforts to help the kids do better. But I am hearing more and more teachers saying they cannot keep up this pace much longer. TEACHERS ARE BURNING OUT!  TEACHERS CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH!