In the never-ending yammer about how to improve public schools, two of the more controversial ideas, because they most concern parents, are class size and time spent there. Florida legislators seemed to think they had a solution to the first when they passed a law mandating classroom-size limitations.
Traditionally taught high school classes can have no more than 25 students in core subjects such as math or English while fourth- through eighth-grade class sizes are limited to 22. That has reduced to 18 for prekindergarten through third grade. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but as always there are some unintended consequences, especially at the high school level.
In any number of courses, the class size can expand dramatically in e-learning laboratories where there is only a computer and no teacher except for a monitor who keeps order and can troubleshoot electronic problems. Some experts tell us this approach has a great advantage, but others are not quite so sure.
Many parents and not a few students who found themselves relegated to the labs charge they have been put there whether they wanted to be or not. National educators, of course, are watching this experiment closely for its possible application elsewhere. But Florida school administrators contend the labs are the only way to meet the mandated class sizes in major high schools.
At the same time — time being the operative word here — parents, teachers and school administrators are once again arguing about the question of how much more of it should be spent in the confines of the classroom. It’s a debate nearly as old as the school system itself, with academics insistent that those youngsters who cannot afford or do not want to endure the steadily increasing costs of a fancy private school would benefit enormously from shorter summer breaks and longer days.
When rural communities dominated the education landscape there was no chance that young field hands could be spared for longer periods of time. Schools let out in May and did not come back until after Labor Day, the major part of the planting and growing season. On the other hand, as the nation urbanized after World War II and more and more previously stay-at-home moms entered the work force, getting the kids off to school and being there when they got home became increasingly difficult.
My father said the most crucial part of the day was 3 in the afternoon, when the school bus dropped off kids. Leaving kids to their own devices for an hour or two or more is a prescription for bad things, he said. For that reason, after-school caretaker programs began to blossom and most schools offer them now.
The controversy surrounding the length of the school day and year has so many special-interest facets that changing it might just be impossible. Teachers have a stake in a routine that provides them with more freedom and allows them to conduct after-school activities such as athletics, theater and music. Parents might find a longer day advantageous in some respects but not in others, such as family vacations.
Nothing is easy when it comes to public schools. At the secondary level, it is a well-documented fact that permitting teenagers to sleep an hour longer in the morning vastly improves their success rate, especially among boys, who frequently develop later than girls and need more sleep. But almost every time, moving the daily starting hour forward causes a storm of protests from parents and teachers — so much for a perfectly easy solution.
It seems to me there is another way to limit class size without legislative fiat. That is simply recognizing once and for all that boys and girls learn at different paces and deal with different biological influences and should be taught separately at least through the eighth grade, if not high school. That is unlikely to occur in any meaningful way for about the same reasons as all the other simple solutions.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.