Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Transformative Justice & the Broken Chair

Perhaps it is fitting that one of the areas about which I am most passionate in my work, is the area of school discipline since I suffered under its yoke quite a bit, particularly in junior high school, when I received dozens of detentions (often for foul language) and was once suspended for “gross disrespect.”  Having experienced a lot of school discipline first hand, I learned quite intimately how poorly applied school discipline only served to make me angry and taught me to disrespect those applying inane punishments (e.g., 1000x of writing “I will call my gym teacher Mr. Dressler.”).  Fortunately, I also learned when appropriate discipline served to teach me an important lesson, allowing the teacher the regain control of the classroom, assure safety, and earn my respect.

When I was in 4th grade, attending Dewey Elementary school, in Oak Park, Michigan, a lower-middle class predominantly Jewish suburb bordering Detroit, I had my first African-American teacher, Mrs. Blackmun.  She was an excellent teacher and I have many fond memories of that year.  However, I had one unfortunate habit which was leaning back on my chair. Despite Mrs. Blackmun’s repeated admonitions to stop doing that for fear that I might fall and hurt myself, I simply could not break my habit of leaning back, which of course resulted in periodic falls, thereby disrupting the class, with new warnings from Mrs. Blackmun.

Towards the end of that year, I fell backwards in my chair one last time.  On this occasion, the back of the wooden chair broke and left a rough wooden edge.  I knew that I was in trouble and meekly awaited my punishment.  At that moment, Mrs. Blackmun showed her utter brilliance by announcing that my punishment was simply that I would continue to sit in the broken chair for the rest of the year.  No suspension, no trip to the office to be scolded by the principal, no parent meeting to shame me, and no requirement to pay for a new chair, which obviously at that age, I could not afford.  Her punishment not only fit the crime, but it was truly transformative because due to the jagged edge, I simply could no longer lean back in my chair and potentially fall backwards, hurt myself and disrupt the class.  To Mrs. Blackmun, I owe my undying gratitude as her brilliant punishment taught me that it is possible to transform a misdeed into a life long lesson that I have carried with me ever since for nearly 45 years.

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A recent article discussing both restorative and transformative justice defined transformative justice as follows:

With the term transformative justice, it is more blatantly clear that we wish to not only provide restitution to the victim, but that we want to improve the overall situation for the victim, the offender, and the community.

With the schools to prison pipeline continuing to explode, more educators should heed Mrs. Blackmun’s lesson and seek to apply transformative justice in their schools and classrooms.  The chairs may not get repaired, but the students’ lives will be transformed in a positive manner.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.