What's the Deal with Smaller Classrooms?

Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

There’s an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post by Eva Moskowitz, the successful edu-preneur of the Success Charter Network in New York City, about the overall value of having smaller or larger classrooms. And, true to type, it’s a piece with numerous useful insights about the bottom-line business of crafting successful schools — and precious little about the foundational human element that undergirds any truly transformational place to work and learn.
Moskowitz is right to urge our collective caution in rushing to assume that small classrooms, by themselves, lead to better learning conditions for kids — and she has a wealth of vivid examples to share.  “Add just one more student per class schoolwide,” she writes, “and Harlem Success Academy gets another $300,000 in total. With that, we can afford headhunters to find the best principals in the country, business managers to handle the non-instructional administration that would otherwise distract these great principals from driving high-quality instruction, ample professional development for teachers, museum trips for students, etc.” These are significant investments — and denying them because of an inherent fundamental allegiance to class size is foolish from a big-picture perspective. As we all know, size matters — but only to a point.
Unfortunately, Moskowitz’s piece is typically technocratic, as has become the de rigeur of the “reformer” crowd. Not once does she acknowledge that the primary motivation behind smaller class sizes — to increase both the quantity and quality of meaningful relationships between adults and children — is a desirable, indeed, essential, goal. Worse still, I am certain Moskowitz believes in the value of these relationships deeply — I can guarantee her network of schools would not be successful without them. Why, then, would she purposely avoid mentioning this fundamentally human element of teaching in a piece that is otherwise, and importantly, about distinctly non-human factors, from Smart Boards to laptops to headhunters?
The only reason I can come up with is the one that explains the root of our deeply polarizing national conversations about school reform: our two major EduTribes have become so entrenched in opposition to each other that they have lost the ability, both individually and as a tribe, to acknowledge the merits of the other side’s observations. In short, you either believe in the power of small classes or you don’t.
As anyone who lives and works in this space knows, that is a stupid argument, whichever side you choose to pick up. We deserve better in spaces as influential as the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post.