Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade, a professor of Latina/Latino studies and race/resistance studies at San Francisco State University, believes that optimal learning requires meaningful relationships: relationships between peers; relationships between students, school staff and instructors; and relationships between schools and the communities they serve.
His latest book, Equality or Equity: Toward a Model of Community-Responsive Education, lays out clear recommendations — mandates — for student success and zeroes in on creating an environment that prioritizes student health over standard markers of achievement like grades and test scores.
“The primary purpose of every school,” he writes, “should be to cultivate the well-being of every child.… Healing a child’s wounds heals the classroom, school, and community entire.”
This is not a new conclusion. Nonetheless, thanks to COVID-19 and the burgeoning mental health crisis facing many children and adolescents, healing has now become a central concern for school districts throughout the country. Reducing class size has become the linchpin of this effort, and teachers from Boston, to Columbus, to New York City are organizing to limit the number of students they teach so that the relationships Duncan-Andrade advocates can develop and flourish.
Educational historian and theorist Diane Ravitch calls this “the most powerful reform” a district can enact.
Regina Fuentes, an English teacher at Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Ohio, and a spokesperson for the Columbus Education Association, told Truthout that public school teachers in Columbus went on strike for three days in August, in part over the number of students they are expected to instruct. “COVID increased the number of kids with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues,” she says. “Overcrowding makes everything worse and we can’t possibly deal with the emotional needs of students when they are crammed into classrooms.”
The strike led to a two-student reduction, to take effect in Fall 2023, from 27 to 25 kids in grades K-5 and from 36 to 34 in grades 6-12. “It’s not great,” Fuentes admits. “But we’re going to keep tapping away at it.”
Research supports this effort. The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR Project, was conducted in Tennessee from 1985 until 1989 and monitored what happened when the number of students in grades K-3 was reduced from between 22 and 26 to between 13 and 17. “Smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in the academic performance of children in primary grades,” the study found. The results were particularly striking for low-income kids and those in Black or Brown communities. Nearly 30 years later, in 2014, a new survey — one of many post-STAR studies conducted in both the U.S. and internationally during the last three-and-a-half decades — came to a similar conclusion.
Furthermore, the researchers noted a slew of benefits when class size was reduced. Not only did fewer students fall through the cracks, but many were able to get more attention, including individualized instruction and tutoring. The researchers also reported an increase in student confidence and self-esteem; this resulted in greater class participation, from more questions asked, to more shared opinions, to more thoughtful assessments of what was presented and ultimately learned. What’s more, the researchers found that smaller cohorts tended to foster deeper relationships between peers and between students and their adult mentors.
But not everyone supports these efforts, and right-wing naysayers have been quick to condemn these measures as the work of do-nothing teachers’ unions. They also cite financial concerns, since reducing class size will inevitably cost money; additional teachers will need to be hired and school buildings will need to be altered to create additional classrooms. And then there’s the issue of standardized test scores — which, the right wing asserts, show little-to-no change when class size diminishes.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) finds the latter stance particularly galling.
According to an AFT report released in July, the right’s focus on test scores completely misses the mark. “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? What America Must Do to Attract and Retain the Educators and School Staff Our Students Need” concludes that:
Reducing class size to its impact on test scores fails to consider the importance of student well-being and fails to treat students as whole people.… If the only goals of schooling were math and language arts test scores, a cost-benefit analysis might make sense. But the goals of education are much more than simply a score. Lower class size addresses the needs of students both academically and socially.
Michael Mulgrew is president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City’s 200,000 public school teachers and school-related professionals. He and his colleagues recently led a successful legislative push to reduce class size throughout the five boroughs, and although the full phase-in will not be completed until 2028, classes will eventually be capped at 20 students in grades K-3; 23 in grades 4-8; and 25 in high school.
“We started organizing for this reduction in the fall of 2021, when we realized we had a problem returning to in-person learning,” Mulgrew told Truthout. “Approximately 85 percent of our students were coming back with social and emotional damage, learning loss, or both, and we knew that we needed to lower class size to facilitate helping them. We’d been fighting to reduce class size for about 40 years, but we’re now finally going to do it. We will be starting with the neediest children, in the schools with the highest levels of poverty, beginning next fall.”
Mulgrew is confident that the change will have a positive outcome — benefiting both students and teachers — but he knows it will not be a panacea. “Teachers are not mental health clinicians,” he says. Still, thanks to an influx of state, city and federal funding to enable more school social workers and counselors to be hired, he is hopeful that increased teacher-staff collaboration will give city students the support they need to excel.
Shelley Orren-King, a New York metropolitan area psychotherapist, agrees that this is important, but cautions that teachers also need training to do initial mental health assessments. “A kid may be quiet, which can be read as studious, but they might actually be depressed,” she explains. “Without training, teachers who are overwhelmed or unsure about what they’re seeing might not know how to evaluate what’s going on with a particular child or a particular teen. Basically, a teacher can only deal with one kid’s emotional and social needs at a time. You can’t do this work if you are multitasking.”
In addition, Orren-King adds, teachers also need support since they, too, are struggling.
Cara Berg Powers teaches in the education department of Clark University and has seen this up close. “The mental load of having to be ‘on’ for so many hours a day, in the aftermath of COVID shutdowns, is taking a toll on many teachers,” she told Truthout. “Thirty-two kids per class is still common in many places and, due to teacher shortages, some districts are now having teachers hold classes in auditoriums where they’re expected to teach upwards of 50 students at a time.” This, she says, makes it impossible for them to form relationships with, or even get to know, the kids in the room.
“As people returned from the exodus of 2020, many educators have become more and more frustrated,” Berg Powers continues. “They are expected to teach for six hours, with kids and teens who are still dysregulated by the pandemic and who are unused to being in groups. Some of them may not have had a ‘normal’ school year since elementary school. Meanwhile, teachers have few resources to do the healing work that is needed. They see kids who don’t pay attention, get in fights or tune out with their phones. They see kids who are obviously stressed by what’s around them. Yes, these were issues before the pandemic, but they’re far bigger issues now.”
So, what to do?
While efforts to reduce class size are ongoing, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are also continuing to push for the hiring of additional social workers and counselors, and for better material and emotional supports for classroom teachers.
Local unions are also getting into the act. For example, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) is pushing for smaller classes to promote better mental health, better interpersonal relationships and better classroom pedagogy. But BTU members are also eager to integrate kids with learning and other disabilities into mainstream classrooms — this will begin in the fall of 2023 — something that requires fewer students in each classroom.
BTU president Jessica Tang emphasized to Truthout that smaller class sizes are crucial “if we are going to expand successful inclusive classrooms and address the social and emotional needs of every student.”
Meanwhile, educational experts such as Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Cara Berg Powers argue that if we want students to thrive, they need to be in small, culturally relevant classes. Courses that promote student immersion in project-based or experiential learning, they add, are the gold standard.
“We could, if we so desired, choose to see all children for their potential and invest in them accordingly,” Duncan-Andrade writes in Equality or Equity. He calls it choosing between schooling children and educating them. We can, he explains, tinker with the current system or we can make a complete pivot and finally and completely move toward equity, challenging racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia as we upend the status quo.
“Educators who are unwavering in their responsibility to stand by the side of the most vulnerable and wounded ones teach our children that equity is not a program, it is not a policy, and it is not the responsibility of an equity office or an equity officer,” he writes. “Equity is justice, and, as is so often said, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And smaller classes are part of making educational equity happen.