One of the AP Literature questions from the early 2000's asked something like this: A critic once said that great literature creates in the reader a sense of pleasure and disquietude. How does (name book) fit this description?
That same premise describes great reporters. I'm getting close to putting Jay Mathews of the Washington Post into that category. At times, Mathews gets it wrong and infuriates me with his outsider viewpoints. But then he follows with insights that perhaps only an outsider can get away with saying. As an insider, I could never get away with claiming that the best teachers can teach a class no matter how many students sit in the desks.
Yet, on the whole, I agree with Mathews when he writes:
"Smaller classes mean more attention for each child, but the impact is minimal compared with making the instructor more effective. 'A great teacher can teach 60,' Esquith told me. 'A poor teacher will struggle with five.'"
Having been on both ends of the spectrum in terms of class size, I can give credence to the relative insignificance of class size. When I taught north of Seattle, my class size regularly ranged from 28-36. I won't claim greatness, but I will claim effectiveness with those students. Much of that success resulted from setting up the classroom in the model of the Harkness tables used at Exeter Academy. While they have class sizes of twelve, I could not limit the class to that number. Instead, I moved the two-person tables to form three "Harkness" tables (resembling a boardroom). By doing this, I eliminated the isolation of rows and created a team mentality among my students.
Last year I struggled with my two senior classes, the largest of the two sometimes reaching as many as 15-18 students. Most days, the numbers ranged from 10-13. The students sat in desks, not at tables, and the room was so large in comparison to the number of students that it became impersonal.
Yet, this must be said: school culture can impact student success as much as, if not more, than effective teachers. For as much as I admire what teachers like Esquith, who Mathews idolizes, can do, they can only be great if their school system allows for it. A certain freedom has to be given to these personalities. And further, let's remember that Esquith gets to be with his students for the majority of the day. This isn't to say he has an easy task, only that his task is somewhat easier than what a high school teacher might face experience when trying to create buy-in. When a teacher can create a certain accountability between peers, that classroom becomes much more effective. When the students visit for a 50-60 minute session and then move on, that team mentality can get driven apart.
So, the question becomes, how do we develop teachers to be successful with larger class sizes? Because let's be honest, as the economy remains weak, teachers will get RIF'd and class sizes will increase. Second, will Central Offices and administrators allow for teacher autonomy if they are having success?