A Private School Teacher Responds to Class Size

There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter lately on the issue of class size:  how Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and all sorts of other billionaire reformers and their foundations argue that the number of students in a classroom doesn’t matter nearly as much as the quality of the teacher.

I want to respond to that claim, generally.  I’m not going to link to any of the specific counter-arguments, or the original statements of these billionaire reformers or their organizations at this time.  Because their research is flawed.

That problem is scaling.

Every private school I know of touts class size, and the ratio of faculty to students, as a key part of its marketing program.  In exchange, they expect parents to part with sometimes-exorbitant sums of money… money to pay those faculty, to keep those ratios low.

The truth is, most of my colleagues in private school are not substantially smarter, nor better trained, nor more aware of the latest teaching methodologies, than our colleagues in public school.  True, more of them hold degrees in the subjects they teach — sometimes advanced degrees — but they often are less aware of teaching methodologies, or how to reach students with more complex issues.

Yet it’s easy for private schools to find people who are competent at handling and teaching twelve students or sixteen students at a time.  It’s not to say they’re bad because they’re not.  They know their subjects, and they have a sense of how to deliver their content, and for the most part they love their subjects.

Ask those same people to teach twenty-five students, though, and the number of them who prove competent at that task probably drops.  We all know people who are great at handling ten people, who are not good in crowds.  Some of them are a little less enamored with the work of grading all those papers.  Others are less enthusiastic about teaching grammar to a class where there are three trouble-makers who sit together and trouble her daily, rather than one ‘trouble-maker’ who can usually be persuaded into participating most days.

Increase the number of students to thirty or forty… or sixty, as some of the current proposals suggest — and the number of effective teachers drops again.

Of course, there are going to people who dispute my suggestion that scalability has anything to do with this.  So I can only offer an alternate ranking of jobs by their skill at managing people:

  1. squad leader
  2. lieutenant
  3. Captain
  4. Colonel
  5. Major
  6. General

We don’t expect military officers to manage large numbers of people right out of school, and do it well.  We have a defined career path for them, and we create opportunities for them to grow and improve through training and development. When a lieutenant demonstrates that they’re not capable of being promoted, they’re honorably discharged.

What the various ‘reformers’ propose is that we throw our young squad leaders and officers into the colonel’s job, when they haven’t yet developed the necessary skills to manage a squad or a platoon.  And we often don’t provide them with enough experienced grunts to do their job effectively, as the army usually provides sergeants and other veterans to wet-behind-the-ears lieutenants fresh from OCS.

Meanwhile, in my job at a private school, I’m teaching roughly the same number of students that I did at the start of my career.  The private schools have done a great job of maintaining the same level of service — the same teacher to student ratio — for fifteen years, largely by raising prices on a regular basis, which public schools can’t do.

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  1. Thank you for your article… it was in interesting read. I have some thoughts I’d like to add.

    Not all private schools have such small class sizes (16 students). The private school I work at has around 22-27 students in the younger grades (Kindergarten – 2nd), and around 25-29 in the older grades (3rd-5th). In middle school we average around 30 students per class. All our teachers are credentialed and some have their masters.

    It is a common misconception that, as you said about private school teachers, “but they often are less aware of teaching methodologies, or how to reach students with more complex issues.” If your private school has access to No Child Left Behind money, they can use it towards teacher training to keep teachers on the same level with the public school.

    I have more thoughts on this issue. If you are interested, visit my blog to read more. Below is a direct link to the blog(s) I’m referring to:


    • Hi, ResourcefulTeacher,

      I’m certainly aware that not every private school is the same; that’s probably one of their chief virtues. The school where I’m currently teaching was founded when parents realized their kids were going to be in a class of 50 back in the 1960s… there wasn’t any way for the school districts to build new facilities fast enough to reduce class size. My old school was founded as a home school, with the added dimension of the son of a friend of the founded from New York City staying in a hastily-prepared dormitory in the attic.

      Every private school has its own story, its own narrative of why it keeps on doing what it does, and its own sense of what a well-trained teacher is. At my old school (when I wrote this story) far more of us were BA or BS-only teachers, teaching the subject we’d studied in college, than formally-trained educators. At my current school, we’re more of a mix of educators and subject-specialists. And I’m aware of still other private schools now, that are closer to public schools with all-certified teachers but very little direct knowledge of their subjects.

      More evidence, though, that bloggers often write about stuff they don’t really understand… and occasionally their past writing comes back to haunt them. At least, it does for me.

  2. Hi Dayna,

    I don’t know. A lot of private schools in America try to keep the number under 16. This is usually the price-break point where paying parents sit up and take notice of the benefits. There are a few schools that go down to 10 students under 1 teacher, but there’s a point where the teacher winds up being too expensive to be able to afford that level of intervention. It’s not a matter of law, so much, as economic realities — teachers in private schools aren’t paid as much as their unionized public-school counterparts, but it’s difficult to stiff them completely on things like health care, retirement packages, and so on.

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