Minnesota education continues its slide toward mediocrity as new information from the U.S. government shows the state ranks near the bottom nationally in classroom size.
In the federal Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics’ study, “Schools and Staffing Survey, Public School Teacher Data File, 2007-08,” Minnesota ranks poorly in two important categories that examine the number of students in classrooms. In all but one category, Minnesota ranked well below the national average.
Neil Witikko teaches five classes of language arts and German at Hermantown High School. He has an average of 27 students per class.
“There is no question that with 27 students, the kids are not getting the one-on-one time they need,” he said. “In writing classes, one-on-one feedback on assignments is very important. Without it, students receive a poorer education than they would get if class sizes were smaller.”
The report broke down classes into two groups: Self-contained classes and departmentalized classes. Self-contained classes occur when one teacher exposes many subjects to one group of students. This happens mainly in elementary school but can occur in secondary schools in special education or English language learner classes. Departmentalized classes occur when a teacher offers only one or two subjects and gets a different group of students each period. This occurs most often in secondary schools, but can occur in elementary school classes such as art or physical education.
Here are the 2007-08 survey results:
- Minnesota ranked 47th in the nation in students in elementary self-contained classrooms with 23.7 in each class, compared to the national average of 20.3
- Minnesota ranked 46th in the nation in students in elementary departmentalized classrooms with 27.3 in each class, compared to the national average of 23.7
- Minnesota ranked 21st in the nation in secondary students in self-contained classes, with 15.8 students in each class, compared to the national average of 18.6
- The state ranked 43rd in the nation in secondary departmentalized classrooms with 25.5 students per class, compared to the national average of 23.3
- Looking at totals for both elementary and secondary education, Minnesota ranked 33rd in the nation with 17.2 students in each self-contained class against a national average of 15.1, and 46th in the nation in departmentalized classes with an average of 20.6 in each class against the national average of 16.8
Jackie Ghylin, a mother of three students in the Lakeville school district, agreed with Witikko’s assessment of the problems that come along with big classes. “Younger students absolutely need to make that bond with their teacher in order for education to be effective,” she said. “Without that bond, education becomes a chore and not what it ought to be – a way to better your life. I truly doubt that can be done with more than 20 students in each class.”
Ghylin noted that it’s simply a numbers game. With, say, 27 students in a class, that is 27 students who may bring special education needs to the classroom, who bring problems to the classroom from outside school, who are gifted yet bored by the curriculum. It means 27 students who need to use the bathroom, try to sneak texts on their cell phone, or try to get their teacher’s attention.
For teachers, five classes of 27 students mean 135 essays to grade, 135 assignments to hand out, 135 midterms and finals to correct and record. Clearly, meaningful feedback isn’t possible with these numbers.
Since 2003, state aid for education – the chief source of funding for schools – has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent. School districts have met with mixed success in trying to make up that difference with voter-approved property tax levies.
In lieu of adequate financing, some schools have cut programs like foreign languages and arts and laid off teachers. This has moved class sizes upward, increasing the number of students for which each teacher is responsible.
This is no way to run a school system. Education experts can bat around ways to manage a bad situation such as using online classes or beefing up the teaching corps with alternatively licensed teachers, but these are canards. The only way Minnesota is going to have a thriving workforce in the 21st century is if we get plenty of well trained teachers into the classrooms and give them the resources they need to work with each student’s strengths and peculiarities.
For a vibrant and robust system, the state must invest and reinvest in education. But state investment has declined in recent years and now the results are becoming obvious. It’s time to change course before Minnesota falls farther behind.