Schedule Choices: Class Size vs. Number of Classes

For years educators have been advocating for smaller class sizes.  It’s a noble long term goal, but it is also an example of how a myopic focus one issue can blind people to the big picture, especially in the short term.  And it reinforces the notion that choices means losing something in order to gain.

When they sat down in May to create a schedule for the following year, Grace Have School, a K-8, had smaller classes sizes at the top of their list.  Unfortunately, the primary class sizes were locked.  There were a set number of students (s), and, when the budget was crafted, the number of classroom teachers was determined (t).  The formula was simple:

s/t = c

Because each primary class gets a teacher assigned to them, that class is one section.  In Grace Haven’s case, they had 500 students and 25 full time faculty for core instruction.  That resulted in classes of 20, on average.

Of course, averages are a funny thing as, in the real world of education, they often do not give an accurate picture of the situation.  The administration had decided to have smaller classes in the K-2 and much larger classes in the middle school.  But, the formula holds: If you know two of the variables, the third is a given.  So, if you want a different outcome (i.e., even smaller classes sizes) you need to change the other two variables by shrinking your student population or hiring more teachers.

The Specials, though, had more flexibility.  Because PE, Art, Music, Health and such could be untethered from the core classroom, they had an opportunity to control their class sizes because they could change the number of sections they offered.  By changing the number of sections, they were, essentially, adding teachers.

To understand this, let’s juggle the formula a bit:

s/c = t

Students (s) remains the same: 500.  That leaves the World Language teacher with a range: She could teach one section (c) of 500 (s), or 500 sections with a single student in it.  Both are ridiculous, but you can hopefully see the sliding range.

At present, each Specials teacher had 25 sections with 20 kids in each section.  Over five days, that meant 5 sections a day.

But the desire was to having smaller class sizes for a number of reasons; one of them being that fewer students meant more hands-on chances for each one.  It was solid pedagogy.  So, they aimed for 15 in a class.  Punch that into the formula:

500/15 = 33.3.

Let’s assume that’s only 33 needed, with a couple of classes having 16 students.  Still, in order to have the desired class size each Special would have to offer 33 sections.  Instead of 5 sections a day, they were now looking at 6.6 sections a day.  Yikes!

That, anyway, was the reaction of the faculty.  The gain of 1.6 new sections a day did not only mean they would be teaching more, or that each of those sections needed to be prepped for.  No, the gain of 1.6 classes also meant the LOSS of 1.6 prep periods.  So, more sections to prep for and less time to do so.

The Specials were caught unaware.  Unfortunately, by the time people realized the trade-off the schedule had gone further down the road.  Attempts to undo the damage were met by others on the committee with annoyance, and their pointing out that they were losing preps garnered little sympathy from primary teachers who had few to begin with.  In the end, they wound up with a difficult schedule.

Lesson: With limited resources (time, bodies), choices are trade-offs.  Know what you are giving up for what is gained.  Is your gain greater than your loss?  Go in eyes-open.


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