The Classroom: Where Learning Is Supposed to Happen

I once taught a class that had 240 students. That class, of course, was still smaller than the freshman chemistry classes I had seen in state schools like University of Illinois. Still, I thought 240 was already frustrating. I did not even try to associate the face of each student to their name. That was mission impossible. Introductory classes like General Chemistry are usually large in universities. These classes, however, are divided into sections (20 students or less) which meet regularly every week as small discussion groups, each one under the supervision or guidance of a teaching assistant.

Obviously, students in higher education are very different from elementary school children. There is some degree of independence assumed from college students. There is no doubt that individual attention is necessary especially in kindergarten and during the early elementary years. One can also argue that even high school students as well as college students can benefit from individual attention. The environment is an important factor behind learning outcomes. Any school, no matter what the level is, becomes a second home to a student. On the teachers' side, elementary and high school instructors are spending their waking hours inside the school. A teacher's day-to-day life is likewise defined by the learning atmosphere.

An elementary classroom in Masbate, Philippines
Above photos copied from Masbate Talks Facebook Page
To support learning, a conducive atmosphere is very helpful. Learning does not easily happen by just providing a curriculum. The environment plays an important role in the implementation of any curriculum. Without a favorable setting, learning can become very difficult, if not impossible. The physical infrastructure is important. As for shelter, a house in a slum is significantly different from a decent apartment. Still, with the resilience of the human spirit, people survive in houses made of cardboard. Children still can learn in classes held under a tree or a bridge. It is in the absence of supporting social and emotional structures that failure becomes a sure thing.

Through this perspective, it is easier to appreciate the importance of class sizes in basic education. Assigning fifty students to a teacher in a first grade class harms both students and teacher. It is therefore no surprise that the fourth solution proposed by Ravitch in Reign of Error is about pupil to teacher ratio:
Solution No. 4 Reduce class sizes to improve student achievement and behavior.
Indeed, this solution may even be more expensive than building classrooms. Reducing the number of students in a class requires hiring more teachers. Building classrooms is a one-time expense. Employing teachers is not. Personnel salary takes a large portion of the DepEd budget in the Philippines. This is the case for all school systems. Doubling the number of teachers certainly requires a substantial increase in the budget. Not doing so, however, is much more costly. Lower graduation rates, costly interventions, disruptive and disorderly behavior, failure in curriculum reform - These can all come simply because of a teacher's inability to provide individual attention to all students. The choice is to either spend now so that class sizes are brought to a manageable size, or do nothing and simply watch schools fail and then spend later on all the ills a failing basic education system can bring to society.