Reduce class sizes

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The one policy action that could make the most difference at this stage of school reform would be a serious reduction in class size. Since this is also the most expensive action, it will happen only when community organizations and the Chicago Teachers Union join forces to demand such a change.

I taught high school in the Chicago Public Schools for 34 years. The high school teachers I know want fewer students in their own classes, but many recognize that significantly lowering class size in the elementary schools would give them better prepared students.

I have been in and out of a number of Chicago and suburban schools in the last two years as an educational consultant and university supervisor of student teachers. Chicago teachers have gotten a bum rap. The most striking difference between Chicago and suburban schools is not in the quality of teaching—I’ve seen great teachers in both places—but the marked disparity in class size and the number of support services available for teachers.

In most of the more affluent suburbs, class size ranges from 18 to 25 students, while in Chicago maximum class size, long set by union contract but now by board policy, is 28 in primary grades, 34 in intermediate grades and 32 in upper elementary grades. In crowded schools, class sizes frequently exceed these maximums.

In addition to smaller classes, most suburban schools have an array of resources Chicago teachers can only dream about: Libraries well stocked with books and other materials. Computers with Internet capacity in each room, and well maintained computer labs with trained teachers to aid students. A TV/VCR in every room and other audio-visual materials brought to the room upon request. Photocopying that is completed for the teacher within 24 hours. Teacher aides frequently available for the classroom.

Throughout the history of the Chicago Public Schools, teachers’ organizations have advocated smaller class size. By the early 1970s, the Chicago Teachers Union finally was successful in including maximum class sizes in the contract. Over the next 10 to 15 years, it was successful in reducing the maximums somewhat, but recently it has neglected this issue.

Fifty years ago, a classroom of students filled 40 desks that were nailed to the floor. The teacher lectured, conducted whole-class recitations and assigned desk work. Some students obeyed dutifully, and those who couldn’t cope dropped out. But in those days, it was easy to get a job without a high school diploma. We all know it is a different story today.

Further, our TV-generation students no longer respond to this traditional approach. All the best educational pedagogy shows that a more student-centered approach with small groups and individual projects produces students with better critical thinking skills. The teacher must be more like an orchestra conductor, moving from one group to the next. In a class of 34 or 40 it is next to impossible to manage such an effort. Discipline and space become huge deterrents even to the best of teachers.

Some Chicago teachers make a valiant effort to utilize the newest methods. As an example, I have seen some superb teaching at Clinton Elementary School, but these particular classes were part of a gifted program that received extra resources and happened to operate in an extremely large and well-equipped room. Imagine how much more effective they and their colleagues could be if they were dealing with 20 students and had the support systems available to teachers in suburban schools.

The emphasis of school reform for the past nine years has been largely on governance and accountability standards. While these have their place, it is time to place the focus where the teaching and learning actually goes on—the classroom. It is time for all concerned individuals and organizations to band together to campaign for smaller class sizes. Certainly it will cost a lot of money, but what better way to use our money?

Paula Baron, who retired from the school system in 1996, supervises student teachers who are receiving their degrees from Northeastern Illinois University.