There has been a spate of teacher strikes across the country recently and just last week the teachers in the Chicago schools, one of the largest in the country, ended their 11-day strike. Like other teachers who went on strike, they were demanding better salaries, extra resources, and better working conditions but also calling for smaller class sizes. And they won a lot of their demands.
In addition to guaranteeing all CTU members a 16% raise over the life of the five-year contract, the offer invests $35 million in reducing class sizes – up $10 million from the city’s previous offer.
On staffing, the city’s offer guarantees that every school will have a nurse and social worker by 2023. The offer includes 120 new “equity positions” for highest-need schools – such as counselors, restorative justice coordinators and librarians – and additional staffing in bilingual and special education.
Note that one thing that they did ask for and got was reduced class sizes. Class sizes have been steadily rising because the lack of adequate funding of public schools means that not enough teachers are being hired.
This has naturally prompted discussions of how much class size matters in student achievement. Academic performance is an important metric as long as it is not being measured purely by scores on standardized tests, one of the least useful measures that one can have. But even with a good measure, that should not be the only metric for evaluating the quest for smaller classes.
To me, class size matters for reasons other than achievement because it affects the quality of the personal relationships that students and teachers have. In my experience, around 12-15 students is what I consider to be the ideal class size. Go below 12 and the class tends to lack collective energy and the sense of being a community of learners. Go too much above 15 and the teacher tends to start to lose the sense of knowing each student as an individual so that you can identify their strengths and weaknesses and give them the targeted feedback they need to really learn and grow.
Bertrand Russell said that, “no man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection toward his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value.” But to have those warm feelings requires one to know students as individuals and larger classes hinder that.