July 9, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Classroom Size

It is important that the student-teacher ratio in the early grades be what it takes to do the job, because it is too expensive to society to fail a child in the beginning.

The whole education process starts with a baby and you are supposed to end up with an adult. A child starts completely dependent and is supposed to end up as independent as possible. It has been called going from infancy to adultery.

A baby starts out getting the undivided attention of at least one adult for most of its waking hours. In some cultures, much of that attention is supplied by one or more siblings. It is essentially a student:teacher ratio of 1:1.

Somewhere around age 5 the child goes to a school where there is one teacher to, at best, 15 pupils, at worst 30 or more. The child continues with a similar 30:1 student:teacher ratio through high school.

If the child goes on to a university, that ratio may change to as much as 1,000:1. If he goes on to graduate school, it may become 1:1 again.

Many studies have been done with kindergarten through third grade students that show that kids do better with small classes(less than 20) than they do with large(more than 20) ones. Based on this, education associations have concluded that small classes are better. Are they?

I don't think that any more research is necessary to show that children who are read to, talked to and given a good deal of attention as infants have an easier time learning to read and write. This has been demonstrated many times and is the basis for the Head Start program, one of education's notable successes. It also accounts, in part, for the success of home schooling.

I believe that going from 1:1 to 15:1 to 30:1 etc. makes no sense. What I have the greatest trouble with is that first transition, which is too abrupt and, I believe, accounts for much of the "why Johnny can't read" problem.

If I wanted to teach one of my kids to do something, I would start by showing him how to do it. He then tries his hand at it. Then I show him again, and so on. The process is a gradual one going from total supervision to more and more independence and less and less supervision. Eventually, he is on his own and doesn't need my help any more. An important consideration is that individual attention is needed when it is needed, not when it becomes available. In a young child, the timing can be critical. This is true when one is learning a new skill, no matter what that skill is, and no matter what the age of the student is. You never give a person a scalpel and say "go and take out an appendix." You don't need a controlled experiment to show that it just wouldn't work. The first people who tried major surgery lost a lot of patients.

I believe that the student-teacher ratio should be very low until a child has developed some proficiency at reading. It needn't be one teacher to one student. It could be, say 6 students to a teacher and two aides, in first grade. This ratio should be maintained until a child is well on the way to learning to read. Many of the children who do succeed will get that 1:1 attention from their parents. The ones who don't get it at home should get it in school. No child should be tossed into the swamp before he is ready, because too many drown and it is much harder to retrieve a mistake than to fix it in the beginning.

Once the basics are learned, class size can be increased by combining classes until some optimum is reached where both the student and teacher are performing near capacity. It must be stressed, over and over again that "the goal is independent learning." A point is eventually reached where a formal classroom and a teacher is a waste of time for both student and teacher. Eventually, the student does it all by himself, with the teacher functioning solely to help him over some rough spots. If a teacher does his job well, he will do himself out of a job. Fortunately for the teachers, there are new students being born all the time.

I believe that we would be better off with a 1:6 student:teacher ratio in the first few grades, even if it means that we would have to increase the size of the high school classroom. Much of the need for small classes in high school and junior college is a function of the failure to teach independent study habits in the early grades and trying to make up for the early failures in the beginning of the education process.

While there are some children who may never be taught to read and write, most of our problems are with kids who are very capable of learning and haven't gotten the right start early enough. A teacher with the time to deal with an individual problem could prevent a much greater problem in the future.

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