Many years ago, when I was a college senior in Southern California, I took a child development class connected with a wonderful campus preschool that was all the things you would expect a 70s-era preschool to be discovery oriented, child centered, creative, and fun. It guess you could call it “open classroom” as well, seeing as the kids had the run of a multi-room former home; of course it helped, in terms of classroom control, that in addition to having a wonderful director there was a ratio of roughly one college student helper for every two children.
Flip ahead two years, and I was one of the teachers in a Head Start program for minority students in Boston’s South End. This was also “open classroom,” but by necessity: There was some structural problem in one classroom that forced us to combined two classrooms of 20-some students each into a mega-class of four teachers and more than 40-something children.
Yes, it was bedlam. There were just too many students and too much noise for much real learning to occur.
I thought about those two schools this week after reading about an experimental elementary school in Brooklyn founded by a former principal and Harvard graduate student who was trying to replicate the small discussion groups at Phillips Exeter Academy. This is analogous to my California school. But, according to a New York Times story on the project and Joanne Jacobs’ subsequent blog, instead of organizing several small groups (which may not have been possible) the founder put 60 first graders in a class with four teachers, and the results were
. yes, as the Times strongly implies, bedlam. The same thing I experienced in Boston.
It’s generally easier to teach wealthy kids than poor ones, but the biggest difference between Phillips Exeter and the Brooklyn school or my California school and the one I worked at in Boston is scale. Putting 60 students in one room with four teachers is not the same as having four 15-student classrooms.
I’m also unimpressed by studies that purport to say that reducing class size has little or no effect on student achievement. Maybe that’s true if you’re talking about cutting a class from, say, 28 to 25 students. But go down to the numbers at private schools like Phillips Exeter, where classes of 15 and less are common, and of course you’ll see a big difference in achievement.
So, bottom line, you can’t say the Exeter study groups can’t work with poor children — because they’ve rarely been tried. Public schools just don’t have the money.
Other interesting posts this week include Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog on a new report that casts doubt on Gates Foundation research supporting value-added teacher evaluations. And be sure to read a great blog in The Daily Riff by a teacher called “How the flipped classroom is radically transforming learning.” (No, I didn’t know what a “flipped classroom” was either; here’s an earlier blog explaining it.)
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor