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Education: 'We all have limits'

Special report, Part 2: Experts debate effects of class sizes; students say it makes a difference

Posted: November 6, 2010 7:24 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

Some of Chynna Fudale’s teachers seem to be wearing thin on patience this year, but the Hart High School 10th-grader doesn’t blame her instructors.

“It would frustrate me too if everyone was trying to talk while I was trying to talk,” she said after school one day.

More kids in the classroom create rowdier behavior and more strain on teachers, said Chynna and two of her Hart High friends.

“I remember at one point, my teacher just handed out a bunch of referrals because people would not stop talking,” Chynna said. “He didn’t know what to do.”

More chaos isn’t the only downside to more students in her classes, Chynna said. A noisy classroom sometimes keeps Chynna from concentrating on her school work.

“When a teacher has to tell everyone to ‘be quiet’ and give out referrals, it kind of breaks your concentration,” she said.

Budget cuts over the last two years have forced school districts to stuff more kids into classrooms. While many educators argue that the increase in numbers puts a strain on student learning, not everyone agrees that class sizes are the key defining factor in a child’s quality of education.

But students like Chynna are anything but blind to the impact that more and more students are having on teachers and classroom atmosphere.

Strain on teachers
The math is simple.

Higher numbers of students in the classroom divided by a teacher’s time and patience equals less attention per child, according to several educators across the SCV.

But even the math doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all students can be divided equally, according teacher Penni Perrault.

“Children aren’t machines. They aren’t one size fits all, and they do need differentiation,” said Perrault, a Newhall School District teacher at Oak Hills Elementary School.

First- through sixth-grade classes in the district are at a maximum of 24 students, an increase of four students over the past couple of years.

Four added students to one class may not seem like much, but some students require a lot of one-on-one attention, either academically or behaviorally, several local elementary and high school teachers agreed.

Perrault said she doesn’t just create one lesson plan; she creates one for each student learning type.

“Teachers have stepped up to the plate. Most teachers are working six days a week,” she said.

Decades ago, squeezing more students into a class may have been acceptable, but times have changed, said Carole Magnuson, president of the Newhall Teachers Association. Today, teachers are held more accountable for their students’ performances.

“Teachers take more responsibility for their students’ learning,” Magnuson said.

Students are more than just numbers, Perrault said.

“They’re human, and every student is different,” she said. “And it’s a teacher’s job to address every student.”

Local high school classes are being topped out at 39 students this year. High school teachers who teach up to five periods a day with a few extra students per period end up with 15 extra students a day.

“Those are 15 extra individuals who need our attention, and 15 sets of parents who need our attention,” said Brian Breslin, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Teachers Association.

The number has increased from 36 two years ago.

“While we openly welcome every student who walks in the door, there’s just so many hours in a class period and so many seconds in a day,” said Breslin, a Hart High teacher.

“Most people who get into this profession get into it because they want to help young people,” he said, “and they see their ability to help young people being hampered” by larger classes.

Other factors
Dominic Brewer, professor of education, economics and policy at the University of California Los Angeles, said research shows that class sizes of 13 to 17 students have significant benefits for students in kindergarten through third grade.

But there is no clear research supporting the fewer-student-better-learning argument beyond a class size of 13-17 students, he said.

“Intuitively, I know many parents and teachers think the larger the class, the worse it is for kids,” Brewer said. “In fact, that research doesn’t confirm that.”

Marc Winger, superintendent for Newhall School District, agreed.

“There’s no great research base for believing that small class sizes are better for instruction,” he said. “And we don’t make that claim; there’s a lot of variables that go into it.”

Those variables include teacher quality, curriculum and textbooks, Winger said.

What really matters, Brewer and Winger agreed, is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

“We, by the way, prove that every day in our upper grades,” Winger said.

Fourth- through sixth-grade classes in the elementary district are at a 30-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

Upgrading teaching quality is also a more cost-effective and realistic strategy compared to bringing down class sizes, he said.

“Hiring more teachers is expensive compared to books or computers or extra training for a teacher or whatever else might be the alternative,” he said.

Winger said the Newhall School District already has a coherent and focused teacher-training program in place.
Teachers wouldn’t argue with the point that instructional quality trumps other factors, said Breslin of Hart High.

Classroom problems
Some of Chynna Fudale’s peers at Hart High agreed that larger class sizes leads to disruptive classroom behavior.

Isabel Baldwin has one teacher who, she says, “yells a lot.”

“There’s a lot of messing around going on,” Isabel said. “(She’s) never in a good mood.”

Henry Mejia targets certain students as the problem.

“It wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t the messing-around kids,” he said.

Chynna has also noticed that her teachers just can’t get to all the raised hands sometimes. Some students end up falling behind, she said.

When asked if atmosphere in the classroom was a reflection of her instructors’ teaching abilities, Chynna said no.

Rather, “it depends on how much patience they have,” she said.

Henry said certain teachers are able to control a rowdy classroom better than others.

“It depends on a teacher and whether or not they’re strict,” Henry said. “If they want to maintain a class, they have to lay some rules down.”

Next Sunday: Unfunded mandates and SCV public schools.

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