Teachers Nationwide Want to Reduce Class Sizes for More Reasons Than COVID

Jeffrey M.R. Jeffrey M.R.

His most recent book, Equality or Equity: Toward a Model of Community-Responsive Education, lays out clear recommendations — mandates — for student success and zeroes in on creating an environment that prioritizes student health over standard markers of achievement like grades and test scores.

“The primary purpose of every school,” he writes, “should be to cultivate the well-being of every child.… Healing a child’s wounds heals the classroom, school, and community entire.”

This is not an uncommon conclusion. Yet, this is a new conclusion. COVID-19, as well as the burgeoning mental illness facing many children, has made healing a major concern for school districts across the country. This effort has been centered on reducing class size. Teachers from Boston to Columbus to New York City have organized to reduce the number of students they are teaching so that the Duncan-Andrade-preferred relationships can flourish.

Educational historian and theorist Diane Ravitch calls this “the most powerful reform” a district can enact.

Regina Fuentes, an English teacher at Eastmoor Academy, Columbus, Ohio and a spokesperson of the Columbus Education Association, said TruthoutThree days of strike by Columbus public school teachers occurred in August over the number students they were expected to teach. “COVID increased the number of kids with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues,” she says. “Overcrowding makes everything worse and we can’t possibly deal with the emotional needs of students when they are crammed into classrooms.”

The strike led to a reduction of two students, which will be in effect from Fall 2023 to 27 to 25 children in grades K-5 and 36 to 34 for grades 6-12. “It’s not great,” Fuentes admits. “But we’re going to keep tapping away at it.”

This effort is supported by research. The Student Teacher Achievement RatioThe STAR Project (or STAR Project) was conducted in Tennessee from 1989 to 1985. It examined what happened when the number students in grades K-3 dropped from between 22 and 26, to between 13-17. “Smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in the academic performance of children in primary grades,” the study found. These results were especially striking in the case of low-income children and those who live in Black or Brown neighborhoods. Nearly 30 years later, in 2014, a new survey — one of many post-STAR studies conducted in both the U.S. and internationally during the last three-and-a-half decades — came to a similar conclusion.

Researchers also noted a slew of benefitsWhen class sizes were reduced. Many students were able get more attention and individualized instruction, which resulted in fewer students falling through the cracks. The researchers also noted an increase in student confidence. This resulted from increased participation in classes, including more questions being asked, more shared opinions, and more thoughtful assessments of the information presented. What’s more, the researchers found that smaller cohorts tended to foster deeper relationships between peers and between students and their adult mentors.

These efforts are not supported by everyone. right-wing naysayers have been quick to condemn these measures as the work of do-nothing teachers’ unions. They also raise financial concerns because reducing class size will undoubtedly cost money. Additionally, additional teachers will need be hired and school buildings may need to change to make room for more classrooms. And then there’s the issue of standardized test scores — which, the right wing asserts, show little-to-no change when class size diminishes.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), finds this stance particularly troubling.

According to an AFT report released in July, the right’s focus on test scores completely misses the mark. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? What America Must Do to Attract and Retain the Educators and School Staff Our Students Need” concludes that:

Reducing class size to its impact on test scores fails to consider the importance of student well-being and fails to treat students as whole people.… If the only goals of schooling were math and language arts test scores, a cost-benefit analysis might make sense. Education is more than just a score. A smaller class size will address the academic and social needs of students.

Michael Mulgrew is president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City’s 200,000 public school teachers and school-related professionals. Mulgrew and his colleagues led a successful legislative push for reducing class sizes in the five boroughs. Although the phase-in of the entire program will not be completed until 2028 the classes will be capped at 20 students in grades Kindergarten through eighth, 23 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school.

“We started organizing for this reduction in the fall of 2021, when we realized we had a problem returning to in-person learning,” Mulgrew told Truthout. “Approximately 85 percent of our students were coming back with social and emotional damage, learning loss, or both, and we knew that we needed to lower class size to facilitate helping them. We’d been fighting to reduce class size for about 40 years, but we’re now finally going to do it. We will be starting with the neediest children, in the schools with the highest levels of poverty, beginning next fall.”

Mulgrew is confident that the change will have a positive outcome — benefiting both students and teachers — but he knows it will not be a panacea. “Teachers are not mental health clinicians,” he says. He is optimistic that city students will be able to succeed because of the increased collaboration between teacher and staff, thanks to federal, state and city funding.

Shelley Orren King is a New York metro area psychotherapist. She agrees that it is important but warns that teachers need to be trained to perform initial mental health assessments. “A kid may be quiet, which can be read as studious, but they might actually be depressed,” she explains. “Without training, teachers who are overwhelmed or unsure about what they’re seeing might not know how to evaluate what’s going on with a particular child or a particular teen. Basically, a teacher can only deal with one kid’s emotional and social needs at a time. You can’t do this work if you are multitasking.”

Orren-King also said that teachers need support as they are also struggling.

Cara Berg Powers, a Clark University education professor, has witnessed this firsthand. “The mental load of having to be ‘on’ for so many hours a day, in the aftermath of COVID shutdowns, is taking a toll on many teachers,” she told Truthout. “Thirty-two kids per class is still common in many places and, due to teacher shortages, some districts are now having teachers hold classes in auditoriums where they’re expected to teach upwards of 50 students at a time.” This, she says, makes it impossible for them to form relationships with, or even get to know, the kids in the room.

“As people returned from the exodus of 2020, many educators have become more and more frustrated,” Berg Powers continues. “They are expected to teach for six hours, with kids and teens who are still dysregulated by the pandemic and who are unused to being in groups. Some of them may not have had a ‘normal’ school year since elementary school. Teachers don’t have the resources to heal their students. They see kids who don’t pay attention, get in fights or tune out with their phones. They see kids who are obviously stressed by what’s around them. Yes, these were issues before the pandemic, but they’re far bigger issues now.”

So what do you do?

While efforts to reduce class sizes are ongoing, the American Federation of Teachers as well as the National Education Association continue to push for the hiring of more social workers and counselors and for better material support for classroom teachers.

Local unions are also taking part in the movement. The Boston Teachers Union (BTU), for example, is advocating for smaller classes to promote mental health, better interpersonal relations, and better classroom pedagogy. But BTU members are also eager to integrate kids with learning and other disabilities into mainstream classrooms — this will begin in the fall of 2023 — something that requires fewer students in each classroom.

Jessica Tang, President of BTU, emphasized that Truthout that smaller class sizes are crucial “if we are going to create successful integrated classrooms and address the social and emotional needs of every student.”

Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Cara Berg Powers, both educational experts, believe that small, culturally appropriate classes are essential if students want to thrive. They say that courses that encourage student immersion in project-based learning or experiential learning are the best.

“We could, if we so desired, choose to see all children for their potential and invest in them accordingly,” Duncan-Andrade writes in Equity or Equality. He calls it choosing between education and schooling children. He explains that we can either tinker with the existing system or make a complete pivot to finally and completely move towards equity, challenging racism and homophobia, as well as challenging racism, sexism and classism.

“Educators who are unwavering in their responsibility to stand by the side of the most vulnerable and wounded ones teach our children that equity is not a program, it is not a policy, and it is not the responsibility of an equity office or an equity officer,” he writes. “Equity is justice, and, as is so often said, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Education equity can also be achieved by smaller classes.