VIEWPOINT by Kenneth J. Bernstein

As it appeared in July 7, 2000 Prince George's and Montgomery Journal Newspapers

Among school children: Class size does matter

I am startled: 11, no, 12 times I hear the clock chime. Is it midnight already? How can that be? It was only 9:00 when I sat down to read and correct the essays I asked my students to write, and I still have two more classes to do...

I teach local, state and national government, a required course in Maryland. Most of my students are 9th graders, who often desperately need affirmation that they are known as individuals and what goes on in their minds matters.

Education is a hot political issue. Presidential, gubernatorial and other candidates each offer prescriptions for reform. But rarely do I find in these proposals the personal dimension, the unique needs of each child. We can read big studies from Tennessee and Wisconsin showing that kids in classes of 15 to 17 students score higher on standardized tests than kids in larger classes.

The politicians suggest billions of dollars to improve education, but the words are dry, full of references to test score percentiles for millions of children. How can voters judge ideas of such massive proportions? Perhaps my experience as a teacher can help.

A class of 171

My six classes have 15 to 33 students apiece, a total of 171. Tonight I have 158 papers to grade, each about 300 words long. Most are handwritten. I need at least a minute per paper to read and reflect, not including any time to make corrections or comments.

That alone is almost three hours. Marking corrections, suggesting improvements or offering congratulations on a job well done adds another minute per paper, five hours on this assignment. I required my students to hand their work in on time, so they deserve feedback on time, in this case by tomorrow's class. Two more hours to go...

Teaching kids sounds simple enough. Distribute textbooks, explain the important concepts, answer questions, assign and correct homework, give and correct tests. But for it to work, a teacher must connect with each child.

That takes time, and when the reality is so many students stuffed into a teacher's day, there simply is not enough time for each. Even when I work 12 hours every day - not so unrealistic some weeks - I still have less than five minutes for each child. This forces me to shortchange students in a hundred different ways.

Let's visit a class of 32 students, most very bright, all designated as ``talented and gifted.'' I was correcting their papers when my clock chimed.

All will go to college, many to very prestigious institutions. Some will take Advanced Placement courses as sophomores. And almost none of them can put together a cohesive argument in their writing or speaking.

Nancy (not her real name) thinks listing a set of ``facts" makes an argument. I must help her learn to explain how the facts support her case. Anthony has his hand raised before I finish asking any question. When I call on him, he begins to formulate what he wants to say as he speaks: it is how his mind works. I may be sympathetic, because my mind is not dissimilar, but I need time to work with him so he learns to organize his thoughts before he speaks.

Serena never raises her hand. It has taken me three weeks to learn she takes time to formulate what she says so it is absolutely perfect. I have seen how she writes: her papers never have typos, or spelling or grammar errors, and are always extremely thoughtful albeit limited in intellectual risk. When she handed in the paper at which I'm looking she apologized because she had only done two drafts. How do I find a way to encourage her to take risks, to try out ideas and dialogue with others as a means of honing her ideas?

How much time to teach each one?

I have told you about three students. And the other 29? I don't know what any student understands until I hear or read his or her words. Then I should respond. But this class has 32 students, and I have 45 minutes...

If I use 15 minutes for direct instruction, I have less than a minute per student to ensure understanding, answer questions, or pursue ideas invoked by the instruction. What might I be missing about my students? Of what are they thereby deprived? I don't know, because I have too many students, and not enough time to find out.

Last year, I had one class with only 22 students, so by midyear, I had a good sense of each. As we explored Supreme Court cases about the Pledge of Allegiance and students's rights, Helga questioned why anyone would refuse to say the Pledge: ``Why can't they just stand up for their country, and do the right thing? It doesn't seem like so much to show a little loyalty." I asked Helga who her closest friend in the class was. ``It's Aneka; she's my very best friend." I asked Aneka if she would answer Helga's question. Aneka said that, like the people in the cases, she was a Jehovah's Witness. She explained why saying the Pledge was a violation of Witnesses' religious beliefs against graven images. You could tell by the expression on Helga's face that she had not known either of Aneka's deep-seated sense of faith or that she didn't say the Pledge (they were in different homerooms). Helga asked some questions, and started to express a partially reformulated view: If her friend Aneka had a good reason, then maybe there were circumstances in which someone could be a loyal American without saying the Pledge. This incident provided the class with a strong illustration of the concept of religious freedom. My main contribution was knowing Aneka was a Witness and would be willing and able to make the remarks she did.

Setting a value on class size

Many private schools limit class size and charge tuition well in excess of $10,000. They claim students receive a higher quality of education derived in no small part from the smaller classes. One paper's fall private school directory advertised class sizes of 15 (Connelly School), 12-18 (Glenelg Country School), 9 (Thornton Friends) and 6-8 (Chelsea School).

Some public schools used to provide such opportunities. The Advanced Placement classes I was in 37 years ago had 13 students in history and 19 in English. In college most of my classes had fewer than 15 students, several as few as four. I got to participate, and - of greater importance - had the opportunity to learn from the expressions of others. I think class size matters.

So does the business world, in which as a data processor I often taught classes for my employer. Most business seminars and instructional classes have 20 or fewer students. I also taught SAT classes for a test preparation firm, classes with a preferred size of 10 or fewer. Those paying substantial amounts for such courses and those teaching them clearly believe class size matters. Should it matter less for the children in our public schools?

I agonize over the students that I might not reach because I don't have time to find out what makes them tick. Is Shoshana not talking because she is shy, or because she doesn't understand what is going on? How about Wolodimir a few years ago, who actively participated in discussions, yet never handed in any written work? Why did it take me 15 weeks to realize that despite being promoted every year, he was reading at a third grade level in 8th grade?

Could it be because I had 37 students in an 18-by-30 temporary building?

I'd like to be able to talk with all of my parents at least once a term, but I can't. Which would I choose: talking with Roy's parents about why he can't sit still, advising Nancy how she can reorganize her essay, or making the modifications to my lesson to account for Daniel who is blind and Maria who is hard of hearing and needs to read my lips?

Each student is entitled to be called by name without my having to look at a seating chart. I have a pretty good memory, but how does Ophelia feel when I'm still calling her Aurelia after three weeks? What about Sandor, who passes me in the hall with a cheery ``Hello, Mr. Bernstein" the second week of school, and I'm desperately trying to remember his name, and cannot respond except with a neutral ``How are you?"

Each student is due respect for personal integrity. I know now after three weeks that Jacqueline is not being rude when she surreptitiously munches a candy bar, because she had lunch at 10:15 and simply cannot last until dismissal at 4:05: by my 2:30 class, her hunger overwhelms her.

Getting them ready

Within four years, most of my students will be able to vote. In our diverse democracy, they must be able and willing to listen to those different from themselves, to understand how someone can rationally believe differently from the way they do.

Can I ensure that Hao and Julia comprehend our American tradition of accommodating diversity of belief and opinion? Will Lorraine and Ahmed learn these things if we do not make the time for them to do so while they are in school? How do we allow for a dialogue in which all can participate when classes are too large to afford everyone an opportunity?

Perhaps you are overwhelmed by the costs of reducing class size, such as building more classrooms and hiring more teachers? But what about the savings? We know from a recent federal study how poorly many people write. Miscommunication in business and government costs a fortune. Had I more time to correct Scott's essays, perhaps his parents wouldn't have to pay for a remedial writing course in college. Could not a reduction in class size also reduce miscommunication?

I taught Andy, who at 15 lived on his own without any regular contact with adults outside school. He desperately needed my attention so he sought it in the only way he knew - disrupting my class. How much instructional time do I lose addressing discipline because I have students to whom I cannot communicate that I know them and care about them? This kind of connection can begin to turn a kid's life around.

What might we then save in justice administration and criminal damage? How do we measure the waste if we lose such children? Wouldn't it be cheaper to have smaller classes?

A final thought: Imagine that you are again a student. Would you prefer a class where teachers know you as the absolutely unique and irreplaceable human that you are and have the time and energy to act accordingly? Or are you willing to settle for classes of 30 or more, where you might or might not get the attention you (and all children) need? My position is simple: all who do not experience the former are cheated of their educational rights, as I have to admit that I must cheat my students of theirs.

Now please excuse me: I still have two hours of correcting papers before I can go to sleep.

Kenneth J. Bernstein is a 9th-grade government teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Senior High School