Teacher Open Phones: What's Your Ideal Class Size?

Monday, October 14, 2013

school classroom (Yasmeen Khan)

Teachers react to Malcolm Gladwell 's report that having too few kids in the room is as bad as too many. What's your ideal class size?

Comments [20]

Jenni S from Bronx middle school

I wonder why anyone is taking the time to parse Malcolm Gladwell's distinction between 16 and 20 students, while the really important issue is between the ideal size of 18 to 20 and the actual sizes in NYC schools of 30 to 34. Well-off students in private schools, who have educated parents and access to an unlimited supply of $160-an-hour tutors, are in classes of 16, whereas our most educationally needy students have to scramble for attention in classes that are double the size.

Oct. 14 2013 05:42 PM
Leonie Haimson from NYC

I blogged on this issue here: I know of no research to support Gladwell's quirky ideas and much that refutes it.

Oct. 14 2013 03:45 PM
Katie Lapham from Brooklyn, NY

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

Please read and respond to this piece I recently posted on my blog. It concerns the NYC Performance Assessments, the results of which will be used as a measure of student learning (20% local measure or MOSL) as per the new teacher evaluation plan. Do you think this 1st grade ELA assessment - as detailed below - is developmentally appropriate? Why or why not? What value does it have? Thanks, Katie

1.) The NYC DOE recommended length of the task was 85-120 minutes over two consecutive days (remember: THIS IS FIRST GRADE!)

2.) After the teacher modeled the task, students had to independently read a non-fiction text that was different from the one the teacher used to model. The title that was pre-selected (not by teachers) for our first graders to read independently was Sea Turtles by Carol K. Lindeen. The age range for this title is preschool – 8, however I believe that for the younger kids, this book is meant to be used as a read aloud and/or for pleasure reading, NOT for use as an assessment. Sea Turtles, which our beginner first grade ELLs were required to read independently, is a level J book, according to Fountas & Pinnell.

3.) The assessment script instructed teachers to encourage first graders to take notes – in their own words – while independently reading Sea Turtles. Note-taking was modeled to the students prior to the start of the assessment. By note-taking, students were instructed to generate two text-based questions while independently reading Sea Turtles. They then had to use the text to answer the questions that they came up with on their own while independently reading a level J non-fiction book. In case you missed it the first time, I reiterate that these are new FIRST GRADERS.

4.) On day two, our first grade students used their notes (student-generated questions and answers) to write their own informational text about sea turtles. They were required to name the topic, include facts and vocabulary words from the text (perhaps migrate or mate?), use writing conventions and write a one sentence conclusion.

Oct. 14 2013 12:39 PM
Duane Stilwell from Rockland, NY

I think we need to see how the very rich organize schooling for their own children. They have smaller class sizes in their private schools, hovering around 16. In those schools, by the way, test results are not in any way used to measure how effective a teacher is.
I am a chemistry teacher in a school district that is undergoing a profound financial crisis. We have lost close to 200 staff in the last five years and have no deans or department chairs, and whole departments--like business and art--have been wiped out. The population we serve is made up in its majority of poor students and immigrant students, who are struggling to survive.
My comment on class size is that it depends what discipline you are talking about, as well as socio-economic factors. You have to ask: how much feedback do my students need? Can I give each student the time and attention they require? A 9th grade English class is very different from an AP English class, and a Regents level Living Environment class is going to have different requirements than an AP Chemistry class. It depends on how much of the class depends on discussion among students, and on the complexity of the information, concepts, and ideas the students are required to learn. The sheer extent of the curriculum is also a factor to consider, especially in math and science classes, and the total teacher load is also an important factor.
In my humble opinion, some classes could be as small as 12 or 16 and be optimally effective, while that number may be too small in other situations. A class of more than 20 begins to be problematic for a population that requires more one-to-one attention from the teacher. Classes that approach 30 or more are going to have some casualties--pedagogically speaking--no doubt about it.

Oct. 14 2013 12:10 PM

15 is the ideal class size. 20 is doable. Over 20 students in a class can impact the quality and quantity of material covered in the lesson due to interruptions and distractions.

Oct. 14 2013 12:03 PM
Thomas from NYC

I take classes annually to maintain certifications and when the class gets to small, I retain less. With a larger pool of students, there are more differing views of a topic and a good instructor unifies this feedback and solidifies everyone's understanding. If there are only a few students, the class feels like we are just reading the text.

Understanding adult instruction and public schools are very different and 'ideal' sizes vary on many factors, I clearly recall that too small has been a problem for me more often than to large.

As a shy, quiet, attentive kid, I remember learning better when my public school class was hectic. When the class was larger and more vocal, there were more questions and answers by others, netting me additional understandings. In deference to the more prevalent understanding that smaller is always better, I have not had to suffer through the unreasonably large classes of near forty, where I probably would have been lost completely.

Oct. 14 2013 11:54 AM
Francesco Filiaci from New York

I have been teaching at a private school on the upper west side of Manhattan for 14 years and taught in public schools in the East Village and Harlem for 4 years prior to that. Class size does matter and the smaller the size the more a teacher can discover what the student knows. In my private school I taught a class of 6 students in an advanced biology course- Seniors- I feel it was one of the strongest classes I have ever taught. We were able to do more student centered work (something which public schools fail to do and this is a huge problem with our system). And student centered work can be done at all levels! Having students present on topics in biology that they are passionate about creates incredible opportunities for deep learning. This is what is missed when class size is too large. It becomes much more of a narrative approach to teaching-Thjis is something that the public school system has continued to push and is (for the most part) a less effective way of learning. Less questions can be answered by the teacher in large classes. The socratic method is much more difficult in a class size of 30 and less time on actually doing the activity given is possible. Just think of this-- If I were to give fetal pigs to 30 students- breaking them up into 15 groups-working in pairs compared to a class of 8 students breaking them up into pairs with 4 groups. How much time would be lost just to take the pigs from the fridge? How much extra time would exist with the group of 4 on actually understanding what the liver is and does? The students would learn less in groups of 3 which would probably happen in a larger class. Or perhaps no teacher would even do this activity if the class size were 35. Basically, less hands on learning would become possible. Yet another problem with large class size. I would ask Malcolm, What teacher would be able to supervise 15 groups with 15 scalpels working to understand anatomy? Smaller class size is generally better- The only exceptions occur perhaps when the size goes down to two or three students where it becomes more of a tutorial than "class".

Oct. 14 2013 11:53 AM
Jonathan Putterman from Bronx

The New Evaluation System: In our school our administrators are coming into our classrooms unannounced, staying for 15 minutes, and then leaving with our lesson plan so they can analyze it and search for all of the Danielson domains that they did not see due to the fact that they only observed a small fraction of our actual teaching. Since the lesson plan has to include every detail of our lesson, it is now taking the same amount of time to write the lesson as it does to teach it. Since I teach over five hours a day, it is also taking over five hours a day to write lessons, prepare materials, analyze student work, and provide feedback to students. I am at school from 7:00am until 7:30 or 8:00 PM every single day because of this new evaluation system. A real evaluation of teaching should involve an administrator spending a day in the classroom unannounced, rather than imagining what our lessons will be like by reading our lesson plans in his or her office.

Oct. 14 2013 11:52 AM

The optimum class size and which (or more precisely which parts) of curricula need to taught f2f are going to be subject to much change as effective distance learning programs increase.

Using personal experience to sculpt a model that is itself changing is not ideal.

One thing I know for certain...Spending up to a third of in-classroom seat time on boning up for multiple choice test is a waste of time and resources.

Oct. 14 2013 11:38 AM
Jane from Brooklyn

I teach high school in Brooklyn, and it is absolutely true that too small a class can be disconnected, or overwhelmed by a single personality to the point of taking over the agenda. A class needs to be large enough to provide different personalities and learning levels, and in high school it can help overcome the embarrassment factor. Also peer disapproval of disruptive behavior is more likely to manifest. Too large a class, however, means an increased chance of having several disruptive students, lack of attention on the part of those who are susceptible to distraction, and more opportunities to hide for students who don't want to reveal their lack of understanding, don't wish to work, or have personal difficulties that are preventing their learning progress. I agree that an ideal size for teenagers would be 16-20. That is large enough to have the right dynamics, but small enough that I can effectively know my students and help them individually.

Oct. 14 2013 11:32 AM
MikeInBrklyn from Clinton Hill

One of the problems I see with the US approach to children is that there is much too much babying of children.

I will never forget or forgive grade downgrades that had nothing to do with my academic performance, but instead happened, unkwown to me, because I whispered a class- relevant question to a classmate.

It was not till I got to college did I see what was possible in high school and other grades. Instead of making teachers glorified baby-sitters, put more onus on the students (even parents) so that they develop a mature mindset about the school environment and their responsibility within it.

In many ways, the kind of baby-sitting that currently occurs is only defining deviancy downward.

Oct. 14 2013 11:32 AM
Sarah C. from Crown Heights, Brooklyn

It is nice to hear about this discussion in terms of high school and middle school class sizes. Sometimes we forget that elementary and intermediate levels are very different animals. Very often, we look for a 'magic number' which can lead to a one-size-fits-all solution. As a teacher of students with intellectual disabilities, a smaller class size (15) works in terms of addressing their needs and teaching social skills in an environment that is not overwhelming. That being said, a particular number of students in a class doesn't ensure that everyone is learning. It depends on the student group dynamic, subject being taught, how it is being taught, school resources and the management style of the teacher.

Oh what a perfect educational world it would be if we had the time and resources to fit the class size to student and teacher needs, rather than fit students and teachers into one predetermined class size.

Oct. 14 2013 11:28 AM

As a Corporate trainer, I found the ideal class size to be 15-18. Not too large to be intimidating, and small enough to allow time for robust discussion.

Oct. 14 2013 11:26 AM
Paula Washington from Pomona, NY

Optimum class size depends on the type of class. New York City caps academic class size at 34. The rest of the state caps such classes at 28. NYC has the most diverse student body in the country. We could use academic class sizes half the current size. An orchestra, however, needs a large enough class size to cover the parts. 65 to 80 would not be too large if the students were advanced enough technically. The same is true of a chorus. In technical/shop class it is dangerous to have more students than work stations.

Oct. 14 2013 11:23 AM
Susanna from NY, NY

I am a public high school teacher in NYC. I teach 5 classes a day. Each class contains 34 students. That means I teach 170 teenagers a day. Although I try my best, there is absolutely no way I can give those 170 students the attention they need on a daily basis. It is extremely difficult to call or email 170 parents with any regularity and to grade 170 essays, homeworks, tests, classworks etc. on a regular basis. How do parents feel about having their children in classes of almost 40? Has Gladwell tried ever taught himself? Has Gladwell ever taught a class of 40 adults, much less 40 teenagers, with any success?

I went to a private high school in Manhattan. My largest class contained no more than 20 students. My smallest class contained 4 of us and in NO WAY did I feel it was too small. In fact, I think I learned the most in that class!

If Gladwell has the right idea, why aren't private schools following suit and enlarging class sizes? Why are the 1% not sending their children to the public schools with these large class sizes? What's good enough for the 1% kids should be good enough for ALL our kids.

And while we're at it, why are we STILL listening to non-educators give us advice on education? Brian, please have TEACHERS on as your guest education experts from now on!

Oct. 14 2013 11:22 AM
liz from Brooklyn

I teach 1 grade I find that once you get below 18 the dynamic get weird above 22 and its a hurricane. I currently have 28.

Oct. 14 2013 11:21 AM
Jeb from Williamsburg

Does ideal class size vary based on subject? Does math require a smaller group than history, for instance?

Oct. 14 2013 11:17 AM
Rocco P. Hill from Queens

I'm a young male Kindergarten teacher and I can say that this is certainly not the case in lower grades.

If we're talking about disruptive kids, the bottom line is that the more students you have, the more opportunities there are for disruption.

The question is whether or not a "disruptive kid" would still be disruptive in a small group.

I've had 30 kids/2 adults (15/1) and it was very difficult to manage. I now have 18 kids/2 adults (9/1) and it's amazing.

The suggestion that it's a bell curve, that it's just as hard to talk to 5 kids as it is to talk to 50, it absurd.

Oct. 14 2013 11:12 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Eliminate Tenure for teachers.

Let teachers be subject to fair evaluation and market forces like anyone else.

Oct. 14 2013 10:14 AM
Arthur Goldstein from NY

I don't know where Malcolm Gladwell's ideas come from. Mine come from 30 years of public school teaching. There is a significant difference between class sizes of 34 and class sizes of 25 or fewer. Kids are unpredictable, and kids need attention. In smaller classes, you can give them the attention they need. You can allow them to express themselves and you don't have to make them be quiet so that others get a chance to speak. It is not our job to simply make kids memorize information and regurgitate it on multiple choice tests, but rather to encourage their participation in classes and society. Anyone who says smaller class sizes are not better has no experience with real live teenagers in real live classes, or is pushing an agenda that is not beneficial to the kids we serve in order to profit people who already have more than they need.

Oct. 14 2013 10:06 AM

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