24 Feb 2010
by Colin Greer
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We Need Smaller Classrooms

In popular education debate, charter schools are vying with public schools. But it would actually make more sense to consider the common denominator that makes some charter schools and some public schools more successful than others.

Charter schools were developed in the early 90s as an alternative to public schools. They receive public funding but are freed from some structural rules that apply to public schools. It’s unclear whether they are cheaper or more effective, mainly because there are so many different kinds. However, one thing that holds true is that charter schools are always more effective when they have reduced class sizes – just as gifted children programs, or after-school drama classes also get better results within the public school framework.

Reducing the ratio between students and adults has been thoroughly proven to work in numerous studies. Basically, anything you can do to reduce the student-adult ratio is bound to be helpful, whether it happens through smaller classrooms, individual tutoring or parent attention, and even student-to-student mentoring.

Direct and individualized contact in some form is what students and children need to succeed in our society. So imagine if we made smaller classrooms an axial principle for building successful public schools where sky-high drop out rates are a thing of the past. Anecdotally, we’ve all run into successful people from poor backgrounds who tell you it was all due to ‘one teacher’ who made them feel valued.

We would need more schools to fit more classrooms, and these could be built as part of a public work programs that creates community jobs. This would be a reliable investment in the future of the country. Schools buildings could be deployed to organize group purchasing of everything from gas to food (imagine actual healthy food in the cafeteria!) and the new buildings could help shift us to a greener economy with sustainable design. We’d have to train new teachers and develop a bigger public work force. And if builders, caterers and even teachers were sourced locally, you would simultaneously help rebuild those communities.

In the end, what we are talking about is basic human relations where the homeopathic principle prevails: the smallest intervention creating the greatest effect.

A smart educator once said to me that the primary goals of education are like ‘three prongs on a fork’. You need to:

  • Learn skills to get a job and make a living
  • Learn skills for living in our culture
  • Learn to live alongside other people

In our public schools today — with average class sizes that exceed what any sane teacher would advise — we tend to neglect teaching kids the final point, without even considering how lack of one or the other part of the fork affects the learning of the rest. Encouraging more meaningful and direct contact between students and teachers through smaller classes is the probably the most simple yet powerful thing we could do to bring about a just and sustainable society.



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