Friday, May 22, 2009

Did you know the average class size in American schools is 8 pupils per teacher? Yeah, me neither…

This is reprinted with permission from Teacher, Revised at by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

In his editorial, “What Is Good for General Motors…Is Good for Education,” (Education Next, Spring 2009) Paul E. Peterson optimistically suggests that the economic crisis could spur much-needed fiscal reform within the education sector.

While I absolutely agree that too much of our taxpayers’ money is spent on stuff that isn’t making our schools better (outsized administrative salaries, bad professional development, flawed assessment models, sucky textbooks), I couldn’t disagree more with what Mr. Peterson identifies as fat. Here’s one particularly baffling passage:

For years, our public schools have paid as little attention to personnel costs as General Motors has. Instead, school districts have attempted to enhance student learning (and address many other problems along the way) by hiring more people—more teachers (for smaller classes) and more teacher aides, guidance counselors, bus drivers, lawyers, accountants, special educators, bilingual specialists, and others.

Back in 1950, school districts hired one teacher (or other instructional employee such as administrator or guidance counselor) for every 19 pupils. The number of pupils per teacher dropped to 14 by 1970, and to just 8 pupils by 2005. If class-size reduction were the solution to America’s education crisis, that crisis would have passed long ago.

Hmm. I’m starting to wonder just when was the last time Mr. Peterson actually stepped into a public school classroom.

My own state of California limits class size to 32 at the secondary level and 20 at the primary level. In other words, as a high school teacher in California, I can be pretty sure that I will have 32 names on my class rosters each semester. And in some cases, I’ll have more (legalities be damned).

Yes, I know, Mr. Peterson is lumping all instructional employees into the teacher category. But isn’t that a little misleading? Not once has an administrator directly helped teach my class. And guidance counselors? Their caseload is impossibly large as it is—they certainly don’t have time to help me grade essays. Or lesson plan. Or do after school tutoring. Or do anything that might fairly be classified as “teaching.”

For all practical purposes, I have 32 students in each class. And just so there’s no room to get it twisted—that calculates to 32 pupils per teacher.

Mr. Peterson misrepresents class size data in order to draw the flawed conclusion that class-size reduction is not working, thus rationalizing the cutting of jobs. Not only does this seem a disservice to the hardworking teachers of this nation who struggle every day to leave no child behind in shamefully overcrowded classrooms, it also seems dishonest.

Class-size reduction isn’t working because it doesn’t exist.

If Mr. Peterson were just some angry kook with a blog (hey, I’m not talking about me!), his fact doctoring wouldn’t bother me so much. But Mr. Peterson is the editor-in-chief of Education Next, an education journal published by Stanford and sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard.

So when he writes things like, “Will the emerging fiscal crisis…shift [attention] from satisfying the employee to educating the student?” I begin to get a little worried. Is it old-fashioned to suggest that a satisfied teacher is a better teacher? Certainly we shouldn’t satisfy teachers at the expense of students, but I tend to view the fate of teachers and students as more aligned than what Mr. Peterson’s equation suggests.

Mr. Peterson is right to propose that the fiscal crisis affords us the opportunity to reassess where our money is going. I just hope—if and when that conversation occurs—that teachers are a part of it. Too much of what passes as reform these days is anti-teacher, or at the very least, out of sync with what teachers are facing on the ground. In the “Correspondence” section of the same issue of Education Next, none of the letters are from teachers. Seems kind of telling, don’t you think?

We, as teachers, must find ways to interject our voice into the conversation. Otherwise, we give permission to academics and bureaucrats to dictate next year’s policies (and budgets). Meanwhile, all that will be left for us is to ask, “How high?”


  1. Back in 1950 teachers also spanked out of control students, parents backed everything a teacher said or did, and one parent stayed at home full time. I don't think Mr. Peterson's comparison from 1950 works in this instance.

  2. Now teachers can't even hug a child, every parent stands up for why their child is unfairly treated, & both parents work full time. Could this be part of the problem? How much time does a school age kid today spend talking with either one of their parents compared to 1950...5 minutes a day maybe?

  3. Time spent with a parent or a teacher who has (and takes) the time to truly know you, to see your strengths and encourage your growth is indispensable. It is awfully hard to do in a classroom with more than 20 kids. But when that kind of positive attention can be given, it increases performance and decreases behavior problems.

  4. Back in the 50's parents had more interest in their kid's education. Nowadays there is more interest in working to buy that big house and car. Who cares if the kids aren't doing well in school? In the 50's people weren't so concerned about these things and so at least one parent was home when the kids got home from school.

  5. I agree that in the fifties parents weren't so concerned about having the big house and car. My mom was home when we got home from school and she always made sure that our homework was done before we were allowed to watch TV or go outside to play. Also, the kids weren't so fat back then because we did spend a lot of time outside playing instead of inside playing video games. Things have really deteriorated these days.

  6. Class size is really not the problem. Other countries where the kids are better educated, such as Korea and Japan, have more pupils per teacher than the United States. It's more an issue that the parents of today don't make an effort to see that their kids do well in school and are doing their homework, etc. If the parents don't care, why would the kids????