Class Size Doesn't Matter

It ain't the size of the class, it's the class of the parents!

That’s right! I’m gonna lay the blame for this latest bout of depression squarely at your feet. You had to bring up District 304 class size, didn’t you! So in order to perform my typical due diligence, I retrieved my dusty Evanston Township High School year book, which holds that hidden St. Nick’s Class of ‘72 graduation photograph.

It’s been 40 years! But what amazes even more than the relentless passage of time is, though I often forget who I called after dialing the phone, I remember so much of St. Nick’s as if it were yesterday.

What that picture did was confirm my recollection that our classes contained 25 kids. I guess I didn’t need to brave the basement and depression after all.

Not only that, but when the classroom hit 90 degrees, as it often did, the nuns would fire up one of those huge metal-cased fans that sat on a 5-foot stand. They virtually had to shout over it to teach. If we were really lucky, they’d let the boys take off our clip-on ties.

Meanwhile, the girls wearing those long, heavy, plaid dresses had no such option.

Though some of the nuns were certifiably nuts, you knew you didn’t mess with Sister Camilla, because that yardstick would come down on you just like the wrath of God she so frequently described. And if a nun did resort to corporal punishment, you were likely to get more at home because your parents always backed the school.

Trust me, those memories aren’t all fond, and I’m certainly not calling for a return to those draconian days. What I am saying is, despite what might be considered less-than-optimal conditions, my Catholic school classmates dominated those ETHS honors classes.

I know that was an overly long preamble—even for me—but it’s important to cover your bases when faced with the fact that some Mill Creek parents told the District 304 School Board it’s important that kindergarten and first-grade class sizes stay small.

You see, I believe, within the bounds of reason, this is just another case where size doesn’t matter.

Citing her son’s 27-pupil Mill Creek kindergarten class, Melissa Swiercewski said, “Even the most wonderful teacher—even that teacher will not have (a chance to succeed with 27 students.) There are too many little minds to engage under those conditions.”

She added, as a former educator, 15 is the optimal class size and each subsequent student dilutes the educational process.

But the pachyderm-in-the-room problem is, in order for her contention to hold water, we have to ignore some other serious variables that clearly affect the educational process. And the proof that class size is inconsequential, which goes far beyond my anecdotal assertions, lies directly in that rubbery parochial-school cafeteria pudding.

St. Peter School, right here in Geneva, currently serves 27.5 children per classroom. But despite daunting disadvantages like that one, spending $2,000 less per student, no air conditioning, and far lower teacher pay, Catholic school students will outscore their public counterparts by 5 percent in math and science and 13 percent in reading.

Before you blurt, “they don’t have to accept every student,” that ain’t the reason they overcome those obstacles. It has nothing to do with a lack of unions or religious discipline, either. Catholic schools succeed because they set their expectations up front, the biggest of which is that their teachers are not there to raise your children.

Let’s get back to the anecdotes.

As you know, I’m completing my first year of travel soccer coaching, and a full two-thirds of that time consisted solely of dealing with disciplinary issues. Most of the kids are great, but the ones that have no limits at home can take a whole team down.

And not only do those parents refuse to support you, they go ballistic when you try to enforce the rules.

If you hold your ground, they will go to the club, they will confront you, and they will actively undermine your efforts with the other parents. So you end up spending 80 percent of your time on 20 percent of the kids.

Having personally faced this phenomenon, I’ve spoken with principals, teachers, education consultants, counselors and district administrators to get their take on it, and they all say it’s getting worse—much worse.

If a teacher has to spend half of her day dealing with students and parents who believe that behavior comes without consequences, then yes, the only means of mitigating that entitlement mindset is to drastically reduce class sizes.

But, if we do that, then what we’re really saying is we expect the school system to raise our children and, if that’s the case, then there’s a real cost that comes along with that expectation.

I may not be sure about much, but what I am certain of is, like gas prices, public-school class sizes are going to go up. And that’s fine with me, because I don’t want to have to faint at the sight of my property tax bill, and the answer to a good education doesn’t lie in 15 students per teacher. No! The solution is school administrators who are willing to suffer the slings and arrows that inevitably come when you take two steps back whenever a parents tries to thrust their responsibility on them.

We can no longer allow the least common denominator to dominate the public school process, or that’s exactly where we’re all headed.

Ken S June 06, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Jeff, I once again find myself agreeing with you which is beginnng to scare me. Having spent several years coaching youth baseball I agree with your comments about how a few kids with no discipline or limits at home can disrupt the entire team. Since I have never been a teacher I can only imagine how these individuals can disrupt a classroom when you have to deal with them for several hours at a time. Several of us who coached would approach the draft night and draft kids based on their parents almost as much as the kids ability. Until parents realize they can't be their kids friends until the kids are in their 20's the issue won't change. Parenting is difficult and requires tough decisions that many parents aren't willing to make. We had these families when I was growing up as well but they were the exception to the rule. Today I'm not so sure that is the case.
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Ken, Thanks! But you'll be much better off if you regularly repeat this phrase, "Jeff Ward is always right!" Jeff
FHS June 06, 2012 at 01:38 PM
The difference today is that kids do not respect and listen to the teachers. We had 25ish in the 70s in NYS, and the thought of a classmate talking back or standing up in the middle of a lesson was almost unheard of. Now, it's almost the norm. I don't know whether it's "diagnos-able behavioral issues" or the parenting, but the lack of respect for the authority figure at the head of the classroom is glaring. (And, yes, we've seen this in coaching as well -- so many times I've heard a coach trying to talk to the group of kids about the week's game and the number of kids talking over the coach and interrupting is ridiculous). I think it's about the behavior of kids today more than the numbers. A group of 30 respectful kids who are there ready to work is a lot different than even 15 kids who can't sit in their seats and constantly interrupt.
Martha Hanna June 06, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Agree Parents need to stop. Your kids aren't that great. They will disappoint and they will break your heart at one time or another in their 18 years under your care. Love them, feed them, cloth them, turn their phone off, eat dinner together, be consistent, make sure they study and read. Get them involved in outside activities, but stay out of it, let them fail, be there to support them. Principles and teachers are overwhelmed with parenting and parents. Give them a break and they will have the TIME to handle larger classrooms.
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 01:40 PM
FHS, Great points and BTW, I don't believe in 95 percent of those diagnoses. It's too much sugar, video games, TV and not enough sleep. But the schools, finally worn out by the fight, are resorting to Ritalin to keep the worst kids in line. Jeff
Jack June 06, 2012 at 01:43 PM
An excellent case made for non-public schools, Jeff. Which of course brings us right back to the subject of money. When we let the government tell us that we have to pay for failing public school systems, whether or not we are foolish enough to put our children in them, we lose -- inevitably. The class-size argument is a distraction. We must have school choice, and stop allowing ourselves to be railroaded into paying twice for a good education.
John Perdikus June 06, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Perfectly put, Jeff. Imagine being a policeman these days...
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 02:00 PM
John, You are dead on. I talk to police chiefs all the time and, ironically, one of them just told me some of their biggest problems are children of police officers! Jeff
Rachel Zonts June 06, 2012 at 02:17 PM
As a Mill Creek parent of soon to be 4th grader and 1st grader your article is aimed at me and I disagree with you. The Mill Creek kindergarten teacher and teacher's aide is wonderful, I cannot sing their praises enough, even though I had had a child go through kindergarten I still learned new things the second time through. Please remember we are not talking about middle school or high school class size, I would even go along with a larger class size for 4th or 5th graders since they have establish their school habits. But kindergarteners have not, they are 5 and 6 year olds who are just starting their school career. Kindergarteners need individualized care and learning to start them on the road to a successful school career but it is hard to do that with 27 students who need varying types of help in a classroom. As a parent I take my role very seriously, I am involved with my children's school and provide love and support at home about school work. But I am not a teacher and will never take the place as one. I also think this is a matter to be handled solely by the district, not by public opinion.
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Rachel, Thanks for your comment. Please note that I said specifically said Kindergarten and first grade classes in the column. I also have to disagree with your premise that public opinion isn't applicable because it's the public that's going to have to bear the cost for decreased class sizes. If Mill Creek parents want to go to the D304 and say, "We want smaller classes and we will write you a check today," then you better believe I'll stay out of it. But if you expect the rest of us to foot the bill too, then we should have our say! Jeff
Colin C. June 06, 2012 at 03:06 PM
Jeff, thank you for sharing that about your growing-up years. Golly, that explains a lot! Anyhow, it's time that we begin to get rid of the concept of grouping kids together in classes entirely. Our current system was modeled on the best, most forward thinking of the early 20th Century: the factory assembly line. The product (students) move from one assembly point (subject,classroom) to the next, parts (information) is installed by the worker (teacher), and then the quality is checked (tested). Then the whole group continues on to the next assembly line even if some of the parts (information, skill, knowledge) from the previous one are missing or improperly installed. We can and must do better than this. We know how to do it. We have the technology. Now it is time to begin to implement a totally new system of education that utilizes the most forward thinking of the early 21st century. The Wright brothers flyer in 1903 introduced an era that put us on the moon within 60 years. Here is an example of the equivalent of that Flyer for what education can become in our century. It's just the beginning. Take a look. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7401696n&tag=contentMain;contentBody http://www.khanacademy.org/
G.Ryan June 06, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Thank you Mr. Ward. I agree with you. Us taxpayers accomodating every whim of these parents is a financial liability. You're article is right on. Somehow with all the discipline and lack of creature comforts when we went to school seem to tough us up for the "real" world. It brought out the rebel in all of us along with survival and coping skills not learned within the educational system! Reflecting upon this those were the days my friend but we never thought that at the time. Remember parents the School District is over 300 million in DEBT please be considerate to this issue. There are people out there suffering and struggling to pay their Geneva tax property bill and could lose their home especially the senior citizens a generation we can all learn from.Thanks again Mr. Ward.
Terry Flanagan June 06, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Jeff, I think the nuns put the fear of God into the parents as well as the students. Of course, many parents of Catholic school kids were products of the Catholic schools as well. We had between 34 and 40 students per class and the teachers managed to teach and maintain order because there was an understanding between parents, teachers, and students that school was no nonsense. We knew that if there was a problem with a teacher, most likely it wasn't going to go in our favor and our parents were going to err on the side of the school. Not that this is a perfect scenario, but it got most kids through school with some academic credentials. Schools do need to maintain order to teach and if that can't be accomplished through cooperattion with parents, stidents, teachers, and administrators then something has to give. And here's where a school voucher system may help and elimante the excuse that public schools need to accept every student. If the schools could recommend alternative schools for disruptive kids (or parents for that matter) and issue vouchers for those kids to attend those schools it might help. Some kids probably need alternative schooling and alternative schools might be geared towards dealing with behavior issues that parents are unwilling or unable to deal with. But until we allow the schools to get back to teaching and away from child rearing we will continue to see poor results.
Angela Kane June 06, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Jeff-- Frightening, but I do agree with your column. A couple of points: 1. If we had unlimited funds (and not the looming $300 million + debt) it'd be wonderful to limit class sizes. Since we live in REAL-VILLE and not LA LA LAND we have to reconsider the ideal and enter reality. 2. Every time people say "kids can't learn in a larger class" we disrespect the teachers and the kids. (Everyone think about that please....) 3. As someone who knows a thing or two about standing in front of a classroom I can tell you that sometimes it is tough to teach a larger class, but not impossible. Ya gotta wanna (calling my inner George Carlin...). 4. Parents have to grow up themselves and parent. If you are told something about your kid perhaps you need to not immediately assault the teacher and consider they might be calling out for help--parent your kid! No, not easy and not fun--but teachers need parental support. That goes for soccer, baseball, camp--whatever. Sometimes teachers ARE wrong or approaching your kid in the wrong manner--but partner with the teacher to find a solution to the issue. Again, kinda tough to agree with Jeff, but occasionally we can all have a moment of clarity on issues of importance.
Angela Kane June 06, 2012 at 04:08 PM
Sorry--said "a couple points" and I listed 4...need counting retraining...
carol mills June 06, 2012 at 04:38 PM
Colin- I couldn't agree with you more. Even with the greatest teachers, the greatest students and the greatest group of parents, it's clear the world has and is changing at a rapid pace, and the post industrial model just doesn't work anymore. Radical new approaches are needed. I am not an educator, so I don't claim to have all the answers-just an open mind to new models for learning.
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Angela, Perhaps your classes were too big! Jeff
Angela Kane June 06, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Nope, not the case. But thanks for dissing my childhood!
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Angela, Always happy to help! Jeff
bhappy2 June 06, 2012 at 05:58 PM
I counted the number of students in my classes from kindergarten through 8th grade. The average class size was 35 students. I believe my high school classes had about 25 to 30 students. Not one teacher had an aide, and I don't recall any discipline problems like teachers have today. We learned right away in kindergarten how to behave. We had to be quiet, raise our hands to talk, or suffer the punishment for misbehavior, and the teachers were quick to hand out punishment (non physical) in order to maintain structure in the classroom. I did well in school as did my siblings and friends. So classroom size isn't the problem. With proper structure and discipline, a good teacher can effectively manage a larger classroom. And, with the higher salaries and pensions that teachers are demanding these days, as parents and taxpayers, we should expect these teachers to be competent enough to handle more students, not less.
Jeff Ward June 06, 2012 at 07:49 PM
B, I wouldn't blame the teachers. They can't enforce discipline when the administrators are so afraid of the parents they won't back the teachers up. Jeff
John R June 06, 2012 at 10:03 PM
An elementary class with more than twenty seven students or so becomes crowd control. Twenty five is more than acceptable and controllable. I believe the parents who spoke up have reason for concern as they are at the threshold. It takes a lot of courage to speak up at the school board meetings your apt to get ridiculed not only at the meetings but possible in the patch as well. I'm still working on finding that courage myself.
G.Ryan June 06, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Well, you spoke up fine John R. at the TownHall meeting which took great courage..thanks for attending.
John R June 07, 2012 at 01:52 AM
Thanks Gayle, I was actually pretty sick with some sort of 24 hr bug. But I thought it was important to attend. After Bruno exploded on, Kate I think, I just had to speak up. It would have been wrong to leave her out to dry. I was dissappointed that the other side of the issue didn't speak up. I would guesstimate that maybe 30 percent, based on applause, Recognition and amens, in attendance have concerns related to some of the taxFact ideas, etc. I think if they would speak of they're concerns it would help everyone get a better idea of each others positions. With the end goal being to find a middle ground. If that is even possible? In hindsight I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. Kate got ripped apart by Bruno and bob and I got interrupted and talked over. But I think I'm ready to be a bit more public. If the spirit moves me I may have a few ideas to bounce off the board at Monday's meeting. But thanks and I mean it. I applaud anyone who gets up in public to express themselves regardless of weather I agree with them or not. It's not an easy thing to do especially when the issue is about money and education. You've done a fine job yourself at the podium. John Rice
Bob McQuillan June 07, 2012 at 02:30 AM
I did not rip apart anyone and I take offense to the comment that I did. Please watch the video tape when it is posted on-line. Put then again, people see and hear what they want to see and hear. Kate Boche and Bruno Behrand started off a "debate" that was not going in the direction that was the goal of the town hall and I stopped it before it got out of control. You might be interested to know that they spoke to each other in the hall way after Kate asked her questions and made her statement. You had the opportunity to say what you wanted and I responded to your questions and concerns the best that I could. I spoke loudly because I did not have a microphone at the time, I wanted to make sure everyone could hear me as it was a large room. I explained that to you at the meeting. When you introduced yourself, I thanked you for coming. It is interesting you focused on one instance at the meeting. Why don't you comment on the revenues, expenses, debt, the 2007 bond issue and the solution that I presented?
Bob McQuillan June 07, 2012 at 02:40 AM
you might want to check out the following information posted on the Illinois Interactive report card site http://iirc.niu.edu/District.aspx?source=About_Educators&source2=Teacher_Characteristics&districtID=31045304026&level=D It records average class size for Geneva and the state of Illinois. Drill down a little further and you'll see that the pupil/teacher ratio is 18:1. If the average class size is 20-22, why do you think the pupil/teacher ratio is lower?
John R June 07, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Bob, That was a typo you did a good job settling Bruno down. He really lost it and I'm glad that Kate was able to speak with him in the hall. She was visible upset and a bit shaken. If you ripprd anyone it was Bruno and he deserved it. So thank you for doing the right thing at that time. I plan on watching the video once your guru has it up. Will the power point also be available? I do appreciate your courteous manner. It was a bit frustrating cause the volume was so high on the mic, the roaming guy with the mic was doing a time out signal, you felt you had to yell to be heard. As a result maybe you talked over me in error but it's all good. I do commend you for holding this forum. Your a heck of a community organizer. You've been at it for a while and you have the communities attention. See you at the next school board meeting, John
jwherley June 07, 2012 at 12:19 PM
As an outsider looking into your education situation, I am sorry to say Jeff but you are living in LALA land. The fact of the nation is that schools and the money are DRIVEN by the test scores..the higher the scores the more money they have the opportunity to acquire. FACT!!! Yes, you as a tax payer have a right to "say" whatever you think is best that you want to pay for...however..keep in mind that if you school districts suffer...eventually your neighborhood and the value of your home will too! Think about it...do you every hear someone say...ohhh the schools are soo bad I want to move there! Your comments about private schools are sooo off base and outdated...anyone who did that today would be fired in a second!! Coaching is a form of teaching, but your analogy suffers greatly...many kids WANT to be on the team and playing the game...many kids in the classroom today DO NOT WANT TO BE THERE and do not pay attention...leaving teachers to perform some sort of enterntainment act to get their attention, retain there knowledge and by some flicker of hope the kid will stay in school long enough to remember that info on the ACT, which has become more important than a diploma! I think the point that Melissa is trying to make, which you totally missed, is this...if we loose these kids at K...due to huge classes...they will be behind for the rest of their school career and that is what you as a tax payer should be worried about..not how bad society is today..can't change that!
Bob McQuillan June 07, 2012 at 02:59 PM
John R Thanks for correction. As to Bruno, I didn't know what he was going to present Monday night and don't necessarily agree with everything he said. I recognized that the interchange was quickly getting out of hand and didn't want the meeting to be overtaken and all the good information presented to be forgotten. If you listen to the video, you will hear me tell Kate Boche that her tone was not wrong, Again, I wanted the meeting to stay under control and you're right, I was harder on Bruno. I do agree that residents need to get involved at both the local & state level. For the Good of Illinois started as a grassroots organization and has grew over the last 5 years. The presentation, comments from the public, complete 2007 bond issue application and tax calculator are all up at the site as of late last night www.genevataxfacts.org. The video will be up shortly. My Hollywood agent is insisting that I sign a waiver first releasing him of all responsibility (just having a little fun with myself and my marathon presentation!).
Kent Frederick June 08, 2012 at 08:20 PM
My doctor will vehemently disagree with you. He thinks public schhols are much better, when it comes to dealing with children. We had a time when our son became very defiant, both at school and at home. He wound up seeing the social worker, and she did wonders in getting him to calm down. As it turns out, the bad behavior was a delayed reaction to the deaths of my parents and several other relatives. My parents died 9 months apart, and we lost a total of 5 relatives in just over 2 years. My parents' deaths really threw the daily routine of life off, between cleaning out residences, dealing with doctors, finances, and such. In fact, my mother's death led to a vacation being scrubbed, just hours after arriving at the resort. A lot of private schools don't have social workers, speech therapists (I worked with one for 2 years, because I had trouble with Rs and Ls), reading specialists and the like. Friends of ours send their kids to a parochial school, but they see the speech therapist at the public school. So, why bother with a private school, when a public school has so much to offer?


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