He was angry.
"I don't know what all these teachers are complaining about," he practically shouted into the telephone. "When I was in school, we had 35 in the classroom, and we didn't turn out so badly."I'd heard it before. He wasn't the first reader, neighbor, friend, relative or co-worker to give me an earful about what's wrong with Utah schools. When you write about education, people call you at work when you're on deadline, corner you at the supermarket while you're picking out grapefruit or spend the family reunion dissecting this story or not, disagreeing with this person or that.
I'm used to it. It goes with the job. I forgot his call - until recently.
It popped out of my memory when I was sitting in a Highland High School classroom crammed with 40 desks and students. I was working on a Deseret News assignment on alternative teaching preparation. In a Walter-Mitty experience, I spent five days at Highland, teaching and observing two English classes and one journalism class of Joan Reynolds.
There were 40 kids in the first English class, 35 in the second. Journalism had only a dozen students. (For three weeks at the beginning of the school year, however, there were 54 students in the one class; the total dropped to 40 when the school received a part-time teacher who took students from several classes.)
I've written a number of stories about class size. Theoretically, I could talk about the problems caused by large numbers to callers such as the elderly gentleman. But I gained an important perspective viewing the problem close up.
It made me look behind the class-size debate raging in this state, often conducted before legislative committees and school boards, that has turned into nothing but a numbers game.
Utah has the largest size of classes in the nation, the educators say. The Utah taxpayer pays a much larger burden for education than his out-of-state neighbors, others counter.
Where do the students fit in this debate? In the Highland English class, it means they have a room barely large enough to hold their desks and inadequate time to meet with their teacher during class to talk individually about their writing.
Teacher Reynolds has discovered ways to partially compensate for the constraints dealt her by class size. Other teachers might shy away from giving writing assignments, but she doesn't. She attaches adhesive notes with comments to student papers. She makes after-school and Saturday appointments to meet with students. She uses parent readers. She divides the students into response groups so they can critique each other's work.
Reynolds uses instructional techniques that wouldn't be necessary in smaller classes or even if her class met the state average of 23. Her one English class, by the way, has a total equal to the Utah average plus the national average of 17.
Her class isn't a rare exception. I've been to a number of Wasatch Front classes, in elementary school through high school, with more than 30 students. Individual attention suffers in large classes.
Probably, as the elderly gentleman told me on the phone, none of these students will turn out badly because they were stuffed into an English class with 35 or 40 kids. These students - who are in honors classes with a great teacher - will probably fare better than others in a similar situation. What about average students or ones needing special help? Do they turn out OK? Is OK good enough?
The Legislature took one small step this year by reducing first grade by three students, but so much more needs to be done. I have no great solutions, but we need to find some. Schools in New Mexico and Maine have moved to more flexible schedules offered by year-round schools and extended days to reduce classes.
I think it's about time to retire the numbers-game debate.