|Bill Gates from Wikipedia|
Size matters— but Bill Gates seems to think it doesn’t.
I’m talking about education and class size. Recent reports show U.S. students to be average compared to world education rankings. According to Yahoo News, Bill Gates suggests that bigger classes and fewer teachers who are paid more will help solve our educational problems.
Gates spoke to the Council of Chief State School Officers on November 19, 2010. (Read his speech here.) He says more teachers and smaller class sizes have not led to increased student achievement. “One of the most expensive assumptions embedded in school budgets is the belief that reducing class sizes improves student achievement...What if we identified the most effective teachers and offered them extra pay for taking on more students, or teaching kids who are behind, or teaching in the toughest schools?”
The thinking of this supposedly smart man has taken on a simplistic tone that is unrealistic to anyone who has been "in the trenches." That kind of thinking is not what I would have expected of Bill Gates. He is only a little right and very wrong. When he says great teachers are vital to student achievement, he’s correct. Teacher proficiency does make a difference. However, even the best teachers will not succeed under certain conditions.
I’m afraid Gates is looking at education in business terms. It bothered me several years ago when Baltimore City began turning over some schools to businesses. The theory was that you could run schools like a successful business to produce successful students. “Produce” is a key word here. We are not running a production line. We are dealing with human beings in a complex environment.
Math facts for Bill Gates
However, if Gates, the business man, wants to look at education in terms of numbers, I can throw out a little math:
A middle school teacher—say a language arts teacher—has 5 classes a day. Each class has 30 students. Each class period is 50 minutes. Teacher load = 150 students a day. Let’s look at how this computes:
30 students for 50 minutes = 1 2/3 minutes of individual attention per student per class period
And then there’s grading. A language arts teacher is supposed to teach writing. If this teacher gives a writing assignment, s/he will have 150 assignments to grade. If s/he gives just one minute attention to each assignment, that equals 2 ½ hours just to minimally assess one assignment.
I don’t want to get too complicated here but where is this 2 ½ hours going to come from? (Don’t get me started on team meetings, parent conferences, phone messages to return and logistics for teachers who have no secretary and who get one 50-minute planning period per day and a 25-minute lunch period—maybe.) And when is this teacher going to plan for tomorrow’s lesson? Don’t forget that this teacher probably has a family and children and s/he is expected to take graduate classes which require the teacher to do assignments for the night class.
I’m merely bringing up the math of class size. I haven’t even started on the human element. A middle school teacher might deal with 150 students a day. On any given day, any one student might act like an 8-year-old or a 16-year-old. And on any given day, students within that 30-student class might range in age behavior from age 8 to 16. Remember, we’re dealing with raging hormones here.
Every middle school student knows that the larger the class, the more s/he can “get away” with. The teacher is less likely to catch shenanigans and bullying because there are just too many children to deal with at once.
And don’t forget the problems students bring to school from dysfunctional family situations and their own volatile emotions.
Bill, before you claim to have the solution to the education problems in our country, why don’t you teach in a middle school for a year? You’ll have a better grasp of classroom math and you might begin to realize that schools cannot be run like a business.
Bill, after you've experienced reality, you will know positively that size does matter.
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