Will children experience fun, play and good relationships?

I had the opportunity to attend an Eagle Crest Elementary PTO meeting last night.  The group of parents at Eagle Crest are doing a fantastic amount of work to support their children’s school.  By my crude back of the envelope calculations they are raising nearly $100 per student.  Principal Ryan Ball would be the first to tell you that the dollars contributed by parents enable he and the teachers to accomplish a host of school goals that would be difficult without these extra dollars.

What struck me most about the meeting – and conversations with parents after the meeting – is the types of issues important to parents.  Field trips and class sizes generated the most enthusiastic conversation.  Parents who talked to me after the meeting discussed arts and music programs.  Conversations about CSAP scores generated very little conversation – except for a query about where creative writing fits in the CSAP regimen.

I have been part of more parent conversations than I can count over the past 15 years – both as a parent at my children’s schools and in my work doing public opinion research.  Parents care about the whole experience their children will have as part of a school community.

There is no doubt that parents care about academic rigor.  They want their children to be challenged and engaged.  But they also want their children to have fun at school and to have opportunities to be creative – even just play from time to time.  Schools feel pressure to limit "play" because they need to maximize instruction time.  There is a tension there.

Here’s another tension.  Parents want their children in small classes.  Several of the classes at Eagle Crest are 27 or 28 students.  You could see the parents bristle when they saw those numbers.  Questions followed about the prospects of reducing class size.  Parents reluctantly accepted the Principal’s explanation for why things are as they are.  But, it was clear parents would prefer smaller classes.

Here’s the thing.  There’s no conclusive evidence that small classes make any meaningful difference in how children score on standardized tests.  Eagle Crest’s CSAP scores are high.  So, are parents idiots?  Are they selfish to want schools and school districts to reduce class sizes? (My experience is that any class over 20 starts to make parents nervous.)

Perhaps parents believe that small class sizes are important for reasons that have little to do with proficiency on standardized tests.  When I ask parents this question, they say that they want to make sure that classroom teachers have time to pay attention to and build relationships with all the children.  We all know from personal experience that it’s more difficult to build personal relationships in large groups than it is in small.  This holds true for teacher-parent relationships, too.  It is only common sense that a teacher would have an easier time building relationships with parents of 20 students than he or she would with parents of 28 students.  Relationships are important to people and they want time for good relationships to form.

This reminds me of a story told by the former North Carolina women’s soccer coach – Mia Hamm’s coach.  He is one of the most successful coaches of all time.  He tells about the team’s soccer practices.  Before each practice, the women would spend 15 – 20 minutes dribbling balls around the perimeter of the field and chat.  The coach said it was a big waste of time so he nixed it from the schedule.  The team kept winning. The bottom line for the team hadn’t changed. But the quality of the women’s play declined and no one was having fun.  The coach allowed the pre-practice gab fest to return as part of the daily ritual and everything seemed right again.  He said (paraphrasing), "I still thought it was a huge waste of time but it was important to the team."

Some things don’t make sense if all we do is look at data and statistics.  But sometimes the good things in life – like building quality relationships – can’t be measured.

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6 Responses to “Will children experience fun, play and good relationships?”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    You’re correct about the data regarding class size. My friend Shirley teaches secondary school math in Singapore, and she says it’s “Heaven” when she gets a class of only 35 students. The average is around 40, and the maximum is 45. Singapore, needless to say, runs circles around U.S. public schools in math.
    As for the Eagle Crest situation, the district intentionally takes advantage of the relatively high quality parents at Eagle Crest in order to overfund teachers where the CSAP scores are abysmal.
    Take a look at the general fund spending on “Teachers, Subs and Assistants” on pages A-14 and A-18 of the FY08 Budget (Amended) at http://www.stvrain.k12.co.us/financial/budget/2008/amended.pdf.
    Because of the failurist funding model the SVVSD has adopted, Eagle Crest gets $1.297M for a projected enrollment of 585 students. Spangler gets $1.305M for just 360 students. Rocky Mountain gets $1.305M for 403 students. Loma Linda gets $1.531M for only 431 kids. Central, with a mere 332 students, gets $1.197M.
    So there you have it. Eagle Crest, with 253 more kids than Central, gets a whole $100K to fund teachers for those 253 kids.
    The Eagle Crest parents have a right to feel cheated. They are being cheated, big-time.

  2. John Creighton Says:

    Brad, I know that precision is important to you. And, I know that when people use selective facts it frustrates you.
    So let’s be precise about some of your points. You poinit out that, “Singapore, needless to say, runs cirlces around U.S. public schools in math.” True. But, Singapore also knocks the socks off of U.S. private and religious schools in math, too.
    I think that we can agree that it is important to elevate U.S. students’ proficiency in math. This is an issue that all who care about education should work on together. In an effort to rally people around a shared cause, I always fail to see the wisdom of dividing people against one another – especially when it requires selective facts. My experience is that such divisive techniques inevitably postpone important conversations.
    I also must point out the selective facts you used in your school comparisons. I notice that all of the schools you use in comparison to Eagle Crest are bilingual schools. You fail to note that these schools offer additional programming – i.e. Spanish language instruction – which contributes in part to the different teacher/student ratios. I can imagine that you disagree with these programs. And, I would agree that we need to have a serious conversation about the merits of our approach to bilingual and English acquisition programs in this district. But, glossing over the differences between schools to make a point about student teacher ratios does nothing to further this conversation.
    Finally, your opening paragraph about Singapore suggests that you miss the point of my post – I’m sure I could have been more clear.
    My point is this: Education policy is not and should not be guided simply by what will produce the highest scores on standardized tests at the lowest cost. Parents do not consider their children to be widgets nor should they. Education policy is and should be guided by U.S. (and more specifically, St. Vrain) public sensibilities.
    I am certain we can learn things from Singapore – in particular in the area of math instruction. (I am sure Singapore can learn from the U.S. too. I understand that the U.S. is seen as a leader in certain math subjects such as data analysis.) But, the U.S. is not Singapore. Our sensibilities are different. We place a high premium on quality personal relationships. And, families want this sensibility reflected in their schools.

  3. Brad Jolly Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, John. Regarding your observation about Singapore math, I would say that private and parochial schools score somewhere between Singapore and U.S. public schools. Probably about halfway between, but that is strictly a subjective estimate.
    You will note that I was not the one who brought up private schools; I was simply responding to your observation that class size is not a big deal (you’re right), and reinforcing that fact using a point related to the topic at hand (class size in public schools). The topic of private school math performance did not seem relevant.
    Regarding bilingual instruction, the bilingual schools already receive substantially more money than Eagle Crest for such things as:
    Bilingual Education Act
    Emergency Immigrant Education Program
    Title III: English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement Set Aside
    Title III: 15% Set Aside
    Title I: Basic program
    I was only talking about general fund money. The other governmental programs for bilingual schools are part of a different fund, the Governmental Designated Purpose Grant Fund.
    Furthermore, I have seen many a bilingual teacher handle a bilingual class beautifully. No extra funding required. My mother taught ESL for years, and she would often have native speakers of five to ten languages in the same classroom.
    You say that, “Education policy is not and should not be guided simply by what will produce the highest scores on standardized tests at the lowest cost.” Who has ever stated otherwise?
    You say that, “Education policy is and should be guided by U.S. (and more specifically, St. Vrain) public sensibilities.” Amen to that! U.S. sensibilities center around freedom, competition, striving for excellence, consumer choice, faith in God, religious freedom, voluntary community organizations, individual rights, employment at will, accountability for results and equality of opportunity. Do these sound like the public schools of today?
    Finally, you say that, in comparison to Singapore, “Our sensibilities are different. We place a high premium on quality personal relationships.” I assure you that Singaporeans also place a high premium on quality personal relationships. I enjoy and treasure several such relationships with Singaporeans.

  4. mike roberts Says:

    John-
    one of the most frustrating aspects of kids in school, is that the whole theory and education seems to be a realm where we have very little knowledge or expertise.
    for better or worse, the internet gives us access to research and articles, although we have no way to verify the validity of the research we find on the web.
    with that being said, a quick Google search turns up articles like those below.
    it makes, us the somewhat educated, but zealous consumer seem to believe that class size matters. so what are we to believe?
    Does class size matter?
    An update…
    by Sabrina Maisel
    which seems to support that class size matters on standardized testing, particularly reading and science.
    also
    Class Size. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management: ERIC Digest, Number Eleven.
    which suggests finding such as . . .
    How large should classes be? Research indicates that the relationship between class size and instructional effectiveness depends on many related variables, such as age level of students, subject matter taught, and instructional methods used. Recent statistical syntheses of this research reveal that the instructional benefits of smaller classes are most significant for classes numbering under 20 students; in those with 25 to 40 students class size has little overall effect on educational quality.
    IS CLASS SIZE RELATED TO STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
    Until recently, research offered little help in resolving the class size controversy. In his 1978 review of research on the topic, Thompson maintained that research findings were necessarily inconclusive because of the intrinsic relativity in the definition of “small” or “large,” the inherent imprecision of outcome measures, the subjectivity of process measures, and the plethora of uncontrolled variables in even the best research designs (1978). Thompson concluded that the relationship of class size to educational effectiveness involves too many complex issues to be reduced to a single testable hypothesis.
    From 1978 to 1980, however, three controversial “meta-analyses” of class size research were published by Glass and Smith; these analyses have since come to dominate discussion of the issue. Smith and Glass employed sophisticated statistical methods to correlate the findings of 80 studies that yielded over 700 comparisons of smaller and larger classes with respect to student achievement, classroom processes, and teacher and student attitudes. Their conclusion is unequivocal: a positive correlation can be drawn between smaller classes and all these variables.
    Smith and Glass came under attack almost immediately by the Educational Research Services, which published an extensive critique of their methods and findings. ERS’s principal objections were that statistical “meta-analysis” precludes identification of meaningful clues contained in the research, that conclusions are overgeneralized from a few “well designed” studies that received disproportionate emphasis, and that the findings as a whole do not justify general class size reductions.
    The latter objection is based on graphs from the Smith and Glass studies themselves, showing that improvement in student achievement and other educational variables does not become dramatic or significant until class size is reduced below 20 pupils. Such a goal is simply not financially feasible in most school districts without drastic remodeling of facilities and expansion of personnel.
    Since ERS published its critique, others have arrayed themselves for or against Smith and Glass, whose studies have become a point of reference in nearly everything written on the subject.

  5. mike roberts Says:

    John-
    one of the most frustrating aspects of kids in school, is that the whole theory and education seems to be a realm where we have very little knowledge or expertise.
    for better or worse, the internet gives us access to research and articles, although we have no way to verify the validity of the research we find on the web.
    with that being said, a quick Google search turns up articles like those below.
    it makes, us the somewhat educated, but zealous consumer seem to believe that class size matters. so what are we to believe?
    Does class size matter?
    An update…
    by Sabrina Maisel
    which seems to support that class size matters on standardized testing, particularly reading and science.
    also
    Class Size. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management: ERIC Digest, Number Eleven.
    which suggests finding such as . . .
    How large should classes be? Research indicates that the relationship between class size and instructional effectiveness depends on many related variables, such as age level of students, subject matter taught, and instructional methods used. Recent statistical syntheses of this research reveal that the instructional benefits of smaller classes are most significant for classes numbering under 20 students; in those with 25 to 40 students class size has little overall effect on educational quality.
    IS CLASS SIZE RELATED TO STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
    Until recently, research offered little help in resolving the class size controversy. In his 1978 review of research on the topic, Thompson maintained that research findings were necessarily inconclusive because of the intrinsic relativity in the definition of “small” or “large,” the inherent imprecision of outcome measures, the subjectivity of process measures, and the plethora of uncontrolled variables in even the best research designs (1978). Thompson concluded that the relationship of class size to educational effectiveness involves too many complex issues to be reduced to a single testable hypothesis.
    From 1978 to 1980, however, three controversial “meta-analyses” of class size research were published by Glass and Smith; these analyses have since come to dominate discussion of the issue. Smith and Glass employed sophisticated statistical methods to correlate the findings of 80 studies that yielded over 700 comparisons of smaller and larger classes with respect to student achievement, classroom processes, and teacher and student attitudes. Their conclusion is unequivocal: a positive correlation can be drawn between smaller classes and all these variables.
    Smith and Glass came under attack almost immediately by the Educational Research Services, which published an extensive critique of their methods and findings. ERS’s principal objections were that statistical “meta-analysis” precludes identification of meaningful clues contained in the research, that conclusions are overgeneralized from a few “well designed” studies that received disproportionate emphasis, and that the findings as a whole do not justify general class size reductions.
    The latter objection is based on graphs from the Smith and Glass studies themselves, showing that improvement in student achievement and other educational variables does not become dramatic or significant until class size is reduced below 20 pupils. Such a goal is simply not financially feasible in most school districts without drastic remodeling of facilities and expansion of personnel.
    Since ERS published its critique, others have arrayed themselves for or against Smith and Glass, whose studies have become a point of reference in nearly everything written on the subject.

  6. John Creighton Says:

    Eric,
    The studies are confusing for most parents. Advocates can be found on both sides of the class size issue.
    I value research. But, when there is not consensus I think we need to rely on our sensibilities. Most teachers and parents I know value smaller class sizes. In addition, academic achievement is only one measure I think is valid. Relationships and the overall educational experience are also valid. Those aren’t as easy to measure.
    Some people like to say that what gets measured gets managed. I think that’s true. And, that’s why I think we must be thoughtful about our measures. But sometimes what gets measured is what’s easy to measure. That’s not always good.

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