When the Deseret News prepared a page honoring four outstanding teachers, to run in conjunction with National Teacher Appreciation Day, the one complaint volunteered by each of the four was consistent: over-large classes.
My sister, who teaches in the primary grades in Cache County, has the same complaint. (A journalist with four of her five siblings in education runs certain risks in becoming an education reporter).To illustrate her woes and engender sympathy for her cause, Sister recounted the tale of just one morning - two children with fevers, one who began throwing up in class. Two hours lost in dealing with problems that had nothing to do with academic instruction.
Add to that the ongoing problems of several who are just plain slow and need special attention, she said, a handful who are in danger of being bored out of their heads because they are always a few steps ahead of the class, and the occasional one who is a victim of child abuse, etc., etc., etc.
Her tale of frustration could be the chorus to a song being sung across the state as Utah's classrooms bulge at the seams.
If large classes are compromising the quality of education in Utah, there is no succor in sight.
Jordan School District announced this week that as part of a $4 million budget reduction, classes will increase by approximately a child per class. Other districts are in the throes of budget trimming as well, and class size is one of a number of chips on the table.
I tend to sympathize with the problem, but a recent study released by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and improvement gave me some food for thought.
The debate regarding what constitutes the ideal number of students for a teacher is not new. The ancient Spartan Herodotus in the 5th Century BC decided that 30 was the magic number and confined his classes to that. Socrates talked about it, but could't decide. He limited his classes by making them available only to those rich young men who could afford them.
Herodotus would be happy with Utah classes, perhaps, since they are approaching his 30-pupil standard, but he may be consternated to find he had to teach up to a dozen subjects and run the spring musical.
The national report shows a steady decine in class size throughout the country. The national average now stands at 17.7 students - a number Utah teachers would no doubt welcome to their classes with open arms. Utah's average is the highest in the country, unless California wants to arm-wrestle for the honor.
The reason I am not yet closing my mind, however, on the classroom size issue is that statistics don't prove that smaller classes naturally lead to better results.
Even with their heavier loads, Utah teachers turn out students who perform well in relation to their peers academically, who go on to higher education in substantial numbers, and who become productive citizens in the majority of cases.
The Japanese have an average 41 students per classroom and outperform the Americans (and the rest of the world) in mathematics and sciences.
The Education Department report suggests Japanese teachers use their time to better effect than their peers in America. American teachers might argue in return that the demands made on them aside from basic education are greater.
Obviously there are more factors involved than simply the number of bodies that occupy desks in a classroom. All of these factors should be given consideration as Utah goes about trying to deal with monstrously challenging funding and population realities that demand the most efficient system we can devise.
There could be solutions more productive and less expensive than simply reducing class sizes, including more classroom aides, greater use of technology, and streamlining curricula to toss out what is extraneous or of dubious value.