Smaller class sizes won't guarantee success

COMMENT

February 14, 1999|By HAROLD JACKSON

THERE'S nothing like the excitement that occurs when understanding conquers ignorance. But spontaneous knowledge is most frequently achieved when class size allows a teacher to give a child some personal attention during the day.

That fact is reflected in the numerous favorite-teacher stories concerning a moment of catharsis when the mind is honed by an instructor who took the time to work one-on-one.

It's easier to instruct when a teacher isn't overworked. Finding the time for individual instruction is difficult when classes are large and include students with collateral problems that affect learning.

Parents understand this. And politicians understand parents. Thus reducing class size has become one of the nutrients that candidates add to campaign speeches when they're trying to sprout votes.

Both Gov. Parris N. Glendening and gubernatorial challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey promised in their campaigns last year to reduce class size. But Mr. Glendening didn't include money for the new teachers in his budget last month.

He said he wanted to give school systems time to develop viable class-reduction plans.

Montgomery County officials complained that they already had a plan, so the governor agreed a week ago to send them $1.7 million. He said other jurisdictions that are ready can get a grant, too.

Howard County says it's ready.

The budget that Superintendent Michael E. Hickey submitted to the county Board of Education last month included $3.5 million for class-size reduction. It would help if $1 million of that came from the state.

Hickey's innovative plan

The Howard plan is innovative in that its focus moves beyond elementary school. Current research shows class-size reduction is most effective in the primary grades, where children need to get the solid foundation that affects their ability to learn in later years.

The governor's Maryland Learning Success Program specifies that class-size reduction should occur in first- and second-grade reading and in seventh-grade math, where students would be encouraged to take algebra and other difficult courses.

Montgomery County's plan targets these three grade levels, as does the class-size plan that Baltimore County hastily announced last week. But the Howard plan jumps from the first and second grades to high school.

Dr. Hickey wants to reduce the size of all ninth-grade English and math classes next school year. In subsequent years he wants to shrink all ninth-grade social studies and science classes.

`Make or break year'

"Ninth grade is the critical year, the make or break year, when most drop-outs occur," Dr. Hickey explained recently.

He said improving the performance of ninth graders also could be key to their eventual performance on the high school assessment examination that the state is developing. The graduation test will become mandatory in 2005, but there will be "no-fault" tests before then.

Disadvantaged students

The Howard plan satisfies another requirement in Mr. Glendening's legislation by adding teachers to schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged students. That criteria fits most of the 17 elementary schools in the county that would have their pupil-teacher ratios lowered to 19-1.

Simply reducing class size, however, may not bring the dramatic results that the governor and school officials desire.

Teacher quality is at least as important as class size. Some teachers would excel even with 40 in a classroom. Others might plod along with fewer than a dozen.

In its haste to reduce class sizes two years ago, California hired 18,000 new teachers, but 4,500 of the new hires lacked teaching credentials.

The Glendening grant program doesn't prohibit hiring provisionally certified teachers, but it requires strategies to reduce their number. It also calls for professional development to help new and veteran teachers take advantage of smaller classes.

Studies of school systems in other states that have lowered pupil/teacher ratios indicate teachers don't automatically change what they do just because they have fewer students.

Teaching the teachers

Some teachers will have to be taught to take advantage of smaller classes.

The goal is to create learning environments where students can get closer to their teachers and to each other. Such interaction is why learning is easier in smaller classes. It may also prove difficult for teachers in the upper grades.

Some middle- and high-school teachers have conditioned themselves to the regimented lecture and quiz format that can keep large classes in line.

Class size reduction won't be an advantage if these teachers remain shackled to old methods. If they aren't trained to get the most out of smaller classes, the benefits won't be worth the cost.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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