“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”-Aristotle
The debate over whether or not class size matters has been ongoing for decades in education circles. While the jury is still out regarding the reliability and authenticity of research on the importance of class size to students’ outcome, we can all agree that there are many other factors of equal importance to students’ achievement rather than class size.
Research done on the issue of class size by Northwestern University Associate Professor Diane Whitmore Schanenbach and published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder makes it extremely clear that class size matters regarding students’ outcome. Professor Schanenbach’s recommendations are most interesting and informative and state that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short term, but will harm their human capital formation.
HUMAN CAPITAL FORMATION
Human capital formation is the process of transforming the people in a country into workers who are capable of producing goods and services. During this process, relatively unskilled individuals are given the tools they need to contribute to the economy. It is critical to the long-term economic growth of a country, and provides the same benefits as new technologies or more efficient industrial equipment. Jamaica is at a critical juncture in the nation’s development and we must ensure that we do all within our power to equip all our students with the requisite skill sets to become meaningful members of the productive sector. As a society we must ensure that no student is left behind. The Ministry of Education “Every Child Can Learn, Every Child Must Learn” is most apt in this regard.
However, should we fail as a society to make the necessary investment in our youth population then the future is indeed bleak. It is clear that the government must do more for the youth population. Disturbingly, half of all Jamaicans between the ages 14 to 25 see no future in Jamaica. This troubling statistic emerged recently from a study commissioned by the Center for Leadership and Governance at the University of the West Indies (UWI). The study revealed that almost fifty per cent of Jamaica’s youth population would be willing to renounce their citizenship. This is not very comforting and we must as society ensure that our best and brightest minds stay in Jamaica in order for us to have sustainable development. Jamaica’s 20/30 Vision statement has not connected with the youth population and this speaks volumes regarding the despair and sense of hopelessness of the youth population. The vision of making Jamaica the place to live, work, raise families and do business has no bearing on our youth population and this should be very troubling not only to the government but also to the wider society because of the serious implications it has for the country. Notwithstanding that Professor Schanenbach is of the opinion that students learn much in small classes which clearly works in the favour of those students who require individual attention or those who are probably a bit shy and will not participate in a larger class.
Professor Schanenbach argues that mechanisms at work linking small classes to higher achievement include a mixture of higher levels of student engagement, increased time on task and the opportunity small classes provide for high quality teachers to better tailor their instruction to students in the class.
Our students are learning at different levels and in many cases there are students who require individual attention in order to master the content being taught. However, with large class sizes this individual attention from the teacher is not possible. The teacher/pupil ratio at the secondary level of Jamaica’s education system is 1:35. However, this ratio is still too high especially in non-traditional high schools where the tendency is to have a wider pool of intelligence levels with various learning challenges in literacy and numeracy.
However, there are opponents of the smaller class size debate and as such they argue that class size is not the most important factor in determining student performance. Those who support larger class size also support having fewer teachers which in turn will save money since less money will be used for education in general. They postulate that other factors which contribute immensely to student’s performance include parental involvement of students, equity in resource allocation, curriculum being used, and the language of instruction, societal/cultural factors, and remuneration of teachers.
However, in the Jamaican context parental involvement is woefully lacking. It can be argued that too many of our parents have abandoned and abdicated their primary role and responsibility towards their children. Our children lack adequate supervision at home; this is fuelled by the fact that the Jamaican society has an overwhelming majority of single parent families. In most instances, these family structures are headed by the female who has to juggle to earn a living while trying to care for her children. This juggling act means that one part of the equation will fail and sadly in most instances it is the children who suffer during this juggling act. This is supported by a recent study done by the National Family Planning Board of Jamaica which states that the Jamaican family is deteriorating significantly and is a cause of great concern. According to chair person of the NFPB, Sandra Knight “we are looking at the discombobulation of the Jamaican family and it concerns us deeply”. This statement speaks volumes of the wholesale breakdown of the Jamaican family and from all accounts the worst is yet to come. Students who have the full support of their parents tend to outperform their counterparts who have little or no parental involvement in their lives.
Another important element contributing to students’ outcome is that of remuneration of teachers. As the Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) gets itself ready to negotiate on behalf of the nation’s teachers for improved salaries and benefits the teachers union should be mindful of the fact that apart from monetary gains which is very important, reduction in class sizes should also be on the bargaining table. If our educators are constantly thinking about their dire financial situation then clearly this will have an impact on how effective they are.
Too many of our students are being left behind because of the teacher/pupil ratio is just not practical and manageable to achieve the best outcome for our students.
It can be argued that there is a co-relation between higher salaries of teachers and improved students outcomes. It’s logical to conclude that teachers will be more motivated and committed to their tasks in circumstances where they are receiving a living wage.
While we continue to make strides in our literacy levels the fact is too many of our students are leaving school as functional illiterates. The ability to recognize words is clearly not the same as being literate. A significant number of our students especially at the non-traditional high schools continue to have serious reading issues. Our policy makers need to redouble their efforts in addressing this issue. The Education Ministry needs to engage more with those teachers in such schools and give more support wherever it’s needed.
The language of instruction is also an important part regarding student outcome. While Standard English is the language of instruction in the classroom, too many of our students have a difficult time understanding this. For the most part our students come to school from a background where the dialect is spoken and readily understood. We then expect them to be able to code switch at school which is proving a daunting task especially for but not confined to those students from a working class background. There is a tendency for students from upper class families to do better than students from the lower socio-economic background. This is supported by Basil Bernstein. Basil Bernstein’s Sociolinguistic theory of language code speaks to relationships between language use and social class. Bernstein argues that middle class students have a clear advantage over students from lower socio-economic class. According to Bernstein, “ forms of spoken language in the process of their learning initiate, generalize and reinforce special types of relationships with the environment and thus create for the individual particular forms of significance”.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
It is clear that many variables affect students’ outcome. It is also clear that much work is required of all of us as stakeholders in order to give to afford our students the best possible chance at succeeding in this competitive world. Our schools must become areas conducive to the teaching and learning process. It is obvious as well that our schools in general require better school managers in order to ensure that our students achieve more. The relative weak top and middle management in a significant number of our schools continue to hamper student outcome. The government also has a major role as well in terms of allocating resources in order to build more schools in areas of high population density so as to reduce class size. Common sense supported by data leads us to conclude that students will continue to perform better at those schools where all the stakeholders are on one accord. In the final analysis class size does matter regarding students outcome due largely in part to the imbalances or short comings of all the other variables impacting student outcome.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”-Barack Obama
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
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