Students lose individual attention as class sizes swell
The reader comments were almost uniformly ugly, blaming teacher salaries and teacher retirement benefits for large class size. This comment takes the cake: This is the new reality, adapt or perish. Students need to learn how to thrive with less attention, and will be better off losing individuality at an earlier age. The sooner young students assimilate into a collective environment, the better they will be prepared for future.
by Nicole Dungca
HAPPY VALLEY -- After walking into Carl Sander's algebra class with a late pass in hand, Alex Gonzales, 13, found himself alone at a side table. It wasn't punishment. The Happy Valley Middle School classroom simply doesn't have enough desks for 47 students.
In many school districts across Oregon, this year's classes represent the largest yet, and students are feeling the effects. "We just learn better in smaller classes," said eighth-grader Hannah Pasco, 13, from the back of Sander's first-period algebra class. "We'd get a better education."
Every day, Sander's six math classes, four with more than 40 students, exemplify the problems with bigger classes -- claustrophobic desk arrangements, more noise, more distractions, student questions that go unasked or unanswered.
"When you're increasing class sizes, you're creating a system in which we are preordaining that a certain percentage are going to fail," said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the Class Size Matters, a New York-based organization that advocates for small classes. "For the high-need students who need that extra help and need adults in their life, you've got to give them smaller classes."
With the latest state forecast projecting an additional $107 million revenue drop for the 2011-13 biennium, a day in Sander's classes provides a glimpse into the future for districts caught between rising benefit and retirement costs and stagnant state funding.
'How big is too big?'
Oregon fell behind national class-size averages years ago.
During the 2007-08 school year, Oregon's average elementary and secondary class sizes -- 24.1 and 26. 3, respectively -- surpassed the national averages of 23.7 and 23.3, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The state fared even worse in the center's 2009-10 report on total student-teacher ratios, ranking behind every state except Utah, California and Arizona.
Backed by research that shows smaller classes yields better results in early grades, legislators in more than 30 states, including Texas, New York and Florida, have passed legislation limiting classroom size. Other states allocate money specifically for class-size reduction.
But as the economic downturn continues to batter state budgets, it has become harder to hold the line. That conflict surfaced in Washington state last week when Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed bridging a $2 billion budget gap by temporarily increasing sales taxes rather than increasing class sizes.
Because statistics are often skewed by exceptions for special education or elective classes, class sizes across the area greatly vary, even within individual schools. Most administrators try to keep core classes such as English or math considerably smaller than physical education or health classes. But this year, even those core classes are growing. In the David Douglas School District, for example, Floyd Light Middle School's average math class has 30 students this year, up about 9 students from 2009-10.
The numbers are even worse in some schools within the 17,300-student North Clackamas School District, which last year shed about 14 percent of its teaching staff. Currently, 130 elementary classes -- more than half -- have more than 30 students. In middle school, students sometimes double up on desks in science class, and more high school teachers are getting used to teaching loads of more than 220 students.
Happy Valley Principal Chris Boyd finds the numbers daunting. "We can't push more students into the classrooms than we have now," he said. "The question we have to ask right now, simply from a parental standpoint, is 'How big is too big?'"
As part of a budget-driven reorganization, North Clackamas board members approved sending sixth-graders to the middle school level this year. At Happy Valley Middle School, that means 310 more students, but only four additional teachers.
Sander now teaches 243 students, more than the entire enrollment of the small alternative high school where he taught for several years. Last year, Sander said, he could develop a strong relationship with almost every one of his students at New Urban High School. Now, in the chaos of a 47-student algebra class, it's hard even to keep the names straight.
At one point in the day at Happy Valley Middle School, Sander tried to catch an eighth-grader's attention as her back was turned. "Ms. Jones," he called. The student, Julia Hodsdon, 13, didn't bother to correct him.
After the interaction, she shrugged. "He does that sometimes."
Hodsdon has learned to schedule time outside of algebra class when she needs assistance. "I waited for help for a whole period once," she said.
Her mother, Donna Hodsdon, said she has noticed teachers this year struggling to remember which Julia she asks about during back-to-school night. She said Julia has come home "overwhelmed" by the crowds. "I think it's outrageous," said Hodsdon, a former educator. "How can a student learn? You can't even ask a question because there are so many people."
Students say it gets too loud to concentrate, that it becomes intimidating to ask questions in such a large class, that they get less feedback on homework and writing assignments. Some also notice more opportunity for cheating, with students jammed so close together.
And teachers, many of whom have seen multiple years of class size increases, are feeling the burden, Boyd said. "The general feeling around here is that people are tired," he said. "People are working really, really hard."
Boyd is trying to orchestrate some relief for teachers like Sander. An extra algebra period will likely bring classes down to 35, but like any decision in education these days, it's a tradeoff -- other elective classes will balloon instead.
Educators like Boyd admit there are no easy answers. But whatever the future holds financially, he said, the current class sizes seem unsustainable. "There's a threshold to everything," Boyd said. "This is the end point right here.
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