What’s the Deal with Smaller Classrooms?

There’s an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post by Eva Moskowitz, the successful edu-preneur of the Success Charter Network in New York City, about the overall value of having smaller or larger classrooms. And, true to type, it’s a piece with numerous useful insights about the bottom-line business of crafting successful schools — and precious little about the foundational human element that undergirds any truly transformational place to work and learn.

Moskowitz is right to urge our collective caution in rushing to assume that small classrooms, by themselves, lead to better learning conditions for kids — and she has a wealth of vivid examples to share.  “Add just one more student per class schoolwide,” she writes, “and Harlem Success Academy gets another $300,000 in total. With that, we can afford headhunters to find the best principals in the country, business managers to handle the non-instructional administration that would otherwise distract these great principals from driving high-quality instruction, ample professional development for teachers, museum trips for students, etc.” These are significant investments — and denying them because of an inherent fundamental allegiance to class size is foolish from a big-picture perspective. As we all know, size matters — but only to a point.

Unfortunately, Moskowitz’s piece is typically technocratic, as has become the de rigeur of the “reformer” crowd. Not once does she acknowledge that the primary motivation behind smaller class sizes — to increase both the quantity and quality of meaningful relationships between adults and children — is a desirable, indeed, essential, goal. Worse still, I am certain Moskowitz believes in the value of these relationships deeply — I can guarantee her network of schools would not be successful without them. Why, then, would she purposely avoid mentioning this fundamentally human element of teaching in a piece that is otherwise, and importantly, about distinctly non-human factors, from Smart Boards to laptops to headhunters?

The only reason I can come up with is the one that explains the root of our deeply polarizing national conversations about school reform: our two major EduTribes have become so entrenched in opposition to each other that they have lost the ability, both individually and as a tribe, to acknowledge the merits of the other side’s observations. In short, you either believe in the power of small classes or you don’t.

As anyone who lives and works in this space knows, that is a stupid argument, whichever side you choose to pick up. We deserve better in spaces as influential as the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post.

Categories: Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Lisa Coleman
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sam.. I’ve read your articles and, well,here’s the “skinny” on an ACTUAL teacher’s perspective….as per smaller class sizes..well, I think, the more there are,the more are educated! I am a teacher in the Escambia County Florida School District, and I have 130, 7th graders! I give my students my utmost attention and everyone learns everyday!!! I also have a wonderful relationship with my students and every teacher on my team values every student for what they bring to the classroom daily. I think that society tends to forget that the teaching career has evolved into a completley different venue. Not only are we attempting to focus on individual content areas, we are also therapists, social workers, problem solvers, “parents” in absentia, and anthing else you can think of! Regardless if I have 15 students or 24 students, I believe that it is up to the teacher to develop the quality of instruction designed specifically for the group of students he or she is given based on various data points, cummulative student data information, and other variables which may enhance student performance. Smaller class sizes are a dream, however;our reality is that we must adjust and adapt our teaching styles to the student populations who are blessedly given to us! Let’s try DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION, INTEGRATION, TEAM TEACHING,etc..and go from there!

  2. Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Lisa, Thank you so much for taking the time to write — and amen! Children need not just intellectual, but also emotional support. They need lessons, and hugs. They need structure, and space. And they need people like you to help them discover who they are, who they are not yet, and whop they want to be. Thank you for all that you do to make that happen.

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