The research is unequivocal: students do better in smaller classes. People learn better from other people with whom they have a relationship. Classes designed with students in mind will be small, no more than ten or fifteen students. We know this. Schools and colleges know this, too: their brochures and websites always boast about the low student-to-teacher ratio if they can. Yet in the United States, the average class size in public school is between twenty and thirty, even for the youngest grades. My own state of Indiana is one of the worst for putting primary students into classes of twenty to thirty, but enlightened California is almost as bad.
Higher education is even worse about cramming young people into giant lecture halls where the professor’s face can only be seen if it is projected on a screen above her head. It’s a funny thing: when students are eighteen, educational management thinks they should be in classes of no more than twenty-five or thirty; at eighteen and a half, once they’ve entered college, suddenly the same students should be fine learning from a speck viewed over the heads of three hundred other people. Some students manage because they have to – by which I mean they get passing grades, ultimately graduate, and are employed, not that they have life-changing epiphanies or that they develop knowledge or critical thinking. But many students don’t manage, and they come back to my freshman English classes at community college after failing at one of the big state universities.
Class size is not the only issue. More and more schools and colleges are trying to convince us that being in classes doesn’t matter at all, whatever their size. Online education is being touted as the great innovation in learning – mostly at the college level, but also in earlier years, in home schools, private schools, and public schools. The research is still coming in on how online education compares to face-to-face, but at my state-wide community college it is statistically evident that students in online courses average one letter grade lower than in face-to-face classes. I don’t know yet if that same pattern is the case everywhere, and I’m not sure if I will know. My husband researches issues of student success at a large Midwestern university, and considerable pressure is being put on him and his colleagues to “find” that online education is great for everybody. But regardless of its success rate, online education fails to meet our criteria of a human-shaped endeavor.
An effective education really isn’t a mystery. A small cohort of students who are given support inside and outside of the classroom, who have competent and caring teachers and a comfortable environment for learning, who are taught with a mixture of lecture, experiential learning, independent study, and enrichment activities, and who can relate what they’re learning to their life goals – that’s all. At my community college, we teach this way – to a select group of students in our accelerated program.
Almost none of these students drop out; close to half of the students in beginning-level regular classes drop out. My college’s retention and completion rates are pretty poor on the whole, since the accelerated program is small; these numbers count against us when the state legislature considers our funding. We’d do almost anything to be sure of our funding, but it’s hard to talk about a human-shaped education to state legislators, who are themselves the products of the failed system and are mostly not going to consider radical reform. The college has to justify itself not in terms of ideal educational methods but in terms of efficiency: in other words, money spent, not results achieved. (Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University, boasts of doing more with less. The less is investment in students; I’m not sure what the more is.)
Real education costs more than the impersonal conveyor belt that most students are on. It’s cheaper to pay two teachers to teach sixty students than it is to pay six to teach the same number. It’s cheaper to make students sit in their own rooms at their own computers than to provide rooms and computers for them in a building. It’s cheaper to design a class one time and hire functionaries to monitor it than it is to support talented educators who can adapt their materials and methods to the students’ needs. Never mind that the . . . experience . . . the students are getting isn’t in fact education; it’s cheap. It’s the equivalent of the dollar menu at fast food restaurants: it’s not real food, and it’s not any good for you, but it is cheap.
Of course no one wants to pay burdensome fees for school at any level; we are already suffering as individuals and as a nation because of the costs of student loans. But let’s acknowledge that we are also suffering as individuals and as a nation from the poor substitute for education that most of us received. If we were committed to a humane and effective educational system, we could pay for it. If schools and universities didn’t have so many expenses extraneous to academic learning, whether football teams in high schools or the proliferation of state-of-the-art buildings in colleges, they could afford to focus on the students more.
We need to do a reassessment of all our educational infrastructure (which I will cover more later). There are fewer students to use our existing infrastructure, built earlier during the Baby Boom but still needing money to pay off and maintain. This leads universities to compete for the shrinking pool of students, largely through more building; public schools, on the other hand, have been allowed to decline and have to fight for scarcer funding as those same Baby Boomers, never very civic-minded, refuse to pay higher taxes for local schools once their kids have graduated.
The purveyors of educational materials – textbooks, software, equipment, furniture, etc. – are another contributor to prohibitive costs. These companies are increasingly giant multinationals focused on profit and unconnected to local communities. When textbooks cost upwards of two hundred dollars — even digital textbooks! — despite their boring, often out-of-date content, I find it baffling that school boards and university departments allow themselves to be controlled by the textbook companies. But they are: schools design courses to fit the books, pay for supplemental products that have to be updated frequently, and, in the case of colleges, even turn over their bookstores to those same companies to run as a for-profit business. I don’t require textbooks in any of the classes I teach; I put together what I can for free and help students find whatever else they need – also for free or minimal cost. Not only do the students save money, they don’t have the busywork I would otherwise assign simply to justify the cost of the book.
So this is the fundamental reason why our classrooms and delivery methods aren’t human-shaped and don’t work: caring about the profit and not about the product, and misunderstanding what the product is. Of course money is important, and we want to see some kind of return on our investment. But the schools, educational supply companies, and states and counties that support them are looking for profit in the wrong place. They see education not as a public utility but as a poorly managed business. More and more state legislatures don’t feel they’re seeing a return on their investment – based on the scores of tests that are poorly conceived and administered and don’t actually measure learning – and are scaling back their commitment to education at all levels, even questioning why they should pay for it at all. They don’t understand the principle that Terry Pratchett explained about opera: “Opera is expensive. It doesn’t make money – you put money in, and you get Opera out.” The point about education is that you put money in and get education out, not that you get rich. If you don’t put the right amount of money into the right things, you don’t get a good education out; you get wasted years, resentful and uneducated graduates, and an unprepared citizenry and workforce. How profitable is that?