Class Size: My Only Concern


My third year of teaching was my second year in my current building, and it was the second year that this building had been open. That year, I was teaching Speech and Debate for the first time.

I was assigned to teach Speech and Debate in the Band room. At least I had chairs; the first iteration of the room assignment schedule had me teaching in the Choir room. No chairs, no desks, not even music stands.

Only one school year had passed since a brand new high school had opened, and already we were scrounging for instructional space.

Fast forward to today: we now have eight “portable” classrooms plus we passed a bond that has since added eight new permanent classrooms on the end of one wing (as well as an auxiliary lunch room, since we have to feed them all, too).

And again, in 2014, we are struggling to find rooms for all of our students.

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A Response to Spencer’s “Handshake Post”

By Tom White

On Monday, Spencer put up a post about Initiative 1351 in which he described the dramatic decrease in the number of relationships within a classroom when class size drops from current levels to those proposed by the Initiative. While this is certainly a novel approach to thinking about class size and the effect it has on the complexities within a classroom, I have two concerns.

First of all, Spencer seems to treat all relationships within a classroom equally. As if Aaliyah’s relationship with Travis, for example, is as important as her relationship with her teacher. I don’t think that’s true. I can certainly accept that she and Travis should have some relationship, and I agree that having more kids in the room might crowd out that relationship, but the primary relationship for both Aaliyah and Travis is that which they have with their teacher. Therefore, while it’s true that the number of relationships is a quadratic function of the number of people, the number of primary relationships – those between a student and her teacher – increases much more slowly as class size creeps up. While I agree that more students means less attention for each student and I agree that less students per class is preferable, I don’t accept Spencer’s dramatic math.

Furthermore, simply lowering class size doesn’t necessarily mean that instruction changes. I teach 28 fourth graders this year. If Initiative 1351 passes, I’ll eventually have only 25 students in my classroom. I honestly can’t promise that my lessons will be noticeably different with three fewer students. They won’t need to be. I’ll still construct and implement my lesson plans in much the same way, using much the same activities. True, I’ll have slightly more contact with each kid during each lesson, but the activities won’t be much different. I’m well aware that in the lower grades and in high poverty schools, class size will drop enough to actually change the learning activities, but in most classrooms – including mine – we’ll be spending an awful lot of money for pretty much the same lessons.

That said, I’ll be voting yes, mostly as a matter of principle, and I hope it passes, but I worry about the cost.

Class Size – A Math Problem


Relationships are central to teaching, as we all know, and as class sizes creep up the ability of a teacher to have meaningful relationships with students diminishes greatly. Meaningful feedback, one of the most critical aspects of a teacher’s work, is a function of the time available divided by the number of students. Hope made a great point in her post last week that student-teacher ratios are one of the key measures of great colleges and private schools. In thinking about the student-teacher ratio, I am reminded of an interesting math problem known as the “handshake problem.” It’s about relationships – not just student-teacher relationships, but student-student relationships. All of these interactions impact the dynamic of the class.

The handshake problem is a great problem for early algebra students because it is easily understandable, slightly mind-boggling, and it is readily solved with algebra. It goes like this: Given a room with a particular number of people, how many handshakes will take place if each person shakes hands with everyone once?

We know that Person A needs to shake hands with Person B and that this will mean that B has already shaken hands with A and thus does not need to repeat this particular handshake… uh oh. Continue reading

I’ll Take College Readiness Over Smaller Class Size

By Tom White

Counting my parents, I was the fourth person in my family of seven to go to college. That was because I was the second-oldest kid. My three younger siblings also went to college. We were raised on going to college. When I found a five dollar bill in a birthday card from a grandma or uncle, I was allowed to hold it for a few days and then it was taken away and put into my savings account where it was “saved for college.”

In my life, college was a huge part of the eighteen years that preceded it.

That, however, is not the case for many kids in America. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a huge disparity in college attendance between students in “high income schools” and “low income schools.”

As educators, we play a long game. Our job is to take five year olds and turn them into college-ready adults. Thirteen years later. So why is it that that the relative income level of a student’s family and classmates should play such an important role in that student’s likelihood of becoming ready for college?

I don’t think anyone has the complete answer. But I keep thinking back to my own childhood, growing up with college-educated parents and the expectation that I was also going to college. Not to mention the fact that they were prepared to help me pay for it and had the wherewithal to get me through the process of enrolling. With that kind of support, there was about a 99% chance that I was going to college. But I honestly think if you removed those factors from my personal equation, the number would be close to 50%. I could have gone either way.

I teach fourth grade. Most of my students don’t really understand what college is all about. Some of them, however, know that it’s the pathway to an adult life with more choices, more opportunities, and yes, more money. Not surprisingly, most of those kids come from families where the parents went to college. I think the biggest challenge in our state is to include the rest of those students in this culture of college readiness. We need to make college students out of every five year old, not just the lucky ones. But how?

There are probably lots of effective ways to make college students out of little kids, but one that I’m fairly familiar with is AVID. It stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. AVID essentially does what my parents did for me. It creates an expectation that each kid is heading toward college. It focuses on creating a growth mind-set and instilling the foundational skills that college-bound kids need. It also works with parents, teaching them how to get their kids into – and through – college.

But it’s also expensive. It involves teacher training, tutoring and on-site coordination. AVID, or any intensive support program designed to close the college-readiness gap between students from high income schools and those from low income schools costs a lot of money. A lot of districts just can’t afford it. They shouldn’t have to. The state should.

As far as I’m concerned, an intensive, targeted, college-readiness initiative would deliver a bigger bang for the buck than reducing class size. That’s not to say that I oppose reduced class size. I have 28 kids in my class right now, and I know that I would be a better teacher if there were only 25. But I’m not sure losing those three kids is going to make the difference in terms of getting the other 25 into college.

And getting kids into college is what we’re paid to do.

Class Size: Put Student Needs First

The need for relationship4thPeriod

I work in a diverse, high poverty high school of 1400 students on the Eastside of Tacoma. My students listen to Kendrick Lamar, Miley Cyrus, and Rascal Flatts. They claim daily meals of pho, collard greens, and hot pockets. Many come from chaotic homes where they are often raising themselves and their siblings. Others have parents or guardians who attend conferences, send regular emails and volunteer on picture day. All have the human need to connect. Each one has a desire for relationship—to be known and accepted as they are.

Effective teaching requires meaningful relationships. This is especially true in high poverty communities where the only sure thing is instability. Balancing content standards and relationships is challenging enough without the added layers of systemic racism, economic hardships, and over crowded classrooms.  I must learn to navigate, relate to, and design individualized lessons for anywhere between 140-150 students each day.

I’m good at what I do. But the more students I see throughout the day the less individualized instruction becomes.

This year I have two classes of 31 students. With my smaller classes later in the day, I’m not over contract limit. That said, I would give many a precious thing for those classes to be reduced. I only have room for 30 desks so everyday “Mike” (the last kid scheduled in) shows up and grabs a spot by the printer. He waits until someone is absent (which isn’t that often) and then takes their spot. I try to remind him daily that he is welcome in class and a part of our community but physical space sends a different message.

That class is also filled with large personalities, each heart hoping to be accepted and each voice longing to be heard. Which means it’s loud. I teach in a way that riles kids up. When kids start arguing about whether Jing Mei’s mom should’ve slapped her earlier or was forcing unrealistic and harmful expectations on her nine year old in The Joy Luck Club,  it’s tough to enforce discussion norms and get students to respect wait time. Every child is looking to be heard.

The need to be heard

We are told that class size doesn’t matter or isn’t a high priority. I can’t help but notice that every elite private school and four year university publishes their sub 20 class sizes on page 2 of their brochure.

Meanwhile, in Washington K-12 we live a different reality. For two days last year, I had 41 students enrolled in my first period English class. That’s FORTY ONE 15 1/2 year olds in a room trying to learn how to read, write, and think. Imagine how this would have influenced student-teacher relationships. Consider the impact on student discourse. In a 55 min period that gives each kid about 1.34 minutes to speak IF a teacher doesn’t use any of the airtime. If a teacher has a 20 minute lesson then that decreases student talk to roughly a minute per child.

Students of all ages desire to be heard. They want to know they exist in the world and others validate their existence. In an academic context, students, although sometimes nervous at first, want to share their ideas with a classroom and want affirmation that their thoughts are accepted and show understanding of the lesson. Furthermore, academic student talk is the primary way students learn and stay engaged with content. Strategies abound from the common “turn and talk” to whole class seminars. Yet, when a classroom is bursting with students, there is little time for student talk.

So when 6’3″ football and basketball players start hollering about what is and isn’t a textual evidence supported theme in Siddhartha, I have little choice but to step back, ride out the discussion. In crowded classrooms, some students will fight to be heard while others will float through a class period without ever sharing a single idea.

The need for meaningful feedback

Students want meaningful feedback. They want to know that their effort on homework was well spent and that they are making strides towards academic goals. Certainly, strategies exist for peer to peer feedback sessions but often it is not taken as seriously as teacher feedback. Why? I believe it’s because I’m the professional. I’m the one trained in my content and can see both potential and possibility in a student’s work. They want to hear from me.

That’s why this weekend (and most Fridays) I pack up my Kia with between 100-130 journals. I use these composition notebooks to inform the next week’s instruction, while giving kids immediate feedback on their learning. The math is stark. I spend between 3-5 minutes reading and commenting on the journals. That task creates roughly 7.5 hours of grading. There are fewer than five hours of scheduled planning time in a teacher’s week. I almost always take work home because meaningful feedback takes time and I know my students need the feedback.

The crowded nature of classrooms across the state is real. I know each teacher is doing their best with the conditions they have. I want to see these conditions improve. Yet, no matter how many kids are in my care, I will still work to develop trusting relationships with each, support academic discourse, and give them meaningful feedback whenever possible.


A Common Core Metaphor

buildingBy Tom White

I live near a five corner intersection, and for as long as I can remember, it’s been equipped with five stop signs. I wouldn’t call it dangerous, but it’s never been very efficient, mostly because of the ambiguity. Turn signals are well-suited for four-way stops; you turn them on when you want to turn and you leave them off when you don’t. Everyone usually knows where everyone else is going.  Turn signals are far less effective at a five-way intersection; you’re never really going straight so you never leave your signals off, but when you do signal, no one knows exactly which right or left turn you’re proposing. Thus the ambiguity.

Consequently, traffic through this intersection has always been messy and slow. Although I’ve never seen any serious accidents, there’s always a lot of halting and stalling; with everyone waiting for everyone else to commit to a turn. During rush hour, the traffic can back up for several blocks. It’s by no means a disastrous situation; it’s more like something that could obviously be better.

So along came a guy with a vision and a degree in civil engineering. “What if we constructed a roundabout?” he thought, and eventually the city council decided to fund the project. Most of the local people were mildly opposed to the change. Roundabouts are still somewhat exotic in this area and they came along well after most of us learned to drive. Besides, like I said, no one was all that concerned with the current situation at Five Corners.IMG_2119

And then came June, when the project started. The intersection became a complicated mess of  torn-up asphalt, orange cones and large, yellow vehicles. Flaggers brought traffic to a complete stop, causing most of us to look for alternate routes through formerly quiet neighborhoods. If the situation was bad before construction, it was horrible during the summer.

And now it’s late September. The worst is over. Traffic has started to travel counter-clockwise around the large circle in the middle. The landscaping has started to materialize. People are beginning to realize that a roundabout is far safer and far more efficient t5-corners-roundabout-2han a confusing five-way stop. Everyone yields and everyone turns right. It’s consistent and predictable.

Long story short: we had a system that seemed good enough, although it really wasn’t. We went through a tough period of change in which everyone was miserable. Now we’re beginning to realize that it was well worth it, because the system that’s emerging is much better than what we had before.

Elementary Specialization

old school

I teach 5th grade, the last year of elementary school in my district. Do you remember what it was like when you were in fifth grade? I actually have a hard time remembering that year, so I’ll just think back to 6th grade. And maybe that’s better anyway because in my school, 6th grade was the last year in elementary. Ok. There’s my teacher: short sleeve button-down shirt and a striped tie. I remember sitting in his room all day long – time to do this, time to do that, recess, lunch, you get the picture. This doesn’t look anything like what 5th grade looks like in my school, and I’m pretty happy about that.

My school has three tracks, which means that there are three teachers at every grade. Not long ago there were only two, but we’ve grown. Before I came to this school the two 5th grade teachers (one of whom I now teach with) decided that they didn’t want their students to miss out on what the other had to offer, so they swapped students for one period a day. Many elementary teachers have done and continue to do this. I did this with my previous teaching partner at a different school with a single subject. “I’ll do all of the math; you do all of the science,” or whatever. What they started here went a step further, and then a step further. When the other teacher retired six years ago I slid into the program as the math and science teacher. When we grew to three tracks and hired a third teacher, the division of labor became even more well defined.

Our program is a little like middle school, but as we like to say – with a safety net. It’s still elementary school, but we do everything we can to prepare our students for what is to come. Students move between each of the three 5th grade teachers in the morning periods, and spend the afternoon period with one of us on rotating basis. They also see specialists once a week in the afternoons for P.E., library, and choir. There are many fine things about this arrangement. Students win because they are exposed to the gifts from each teacher and they get a chance to learn in different settings with different teaching styles. The teachers win too because they love their subjects, and they no longer have to prepare for six different classes, rather just two. But there are some sacrifices too. My student load is 78 students rather than just 26. That means more grading, tracking, remediating, challenging, and helping along, but nothing a typical middle school teacher would mind – many of them have a load of 125 or more. The relationships with students are typically not as deep as they would be in a self-contained class, but then again there are more relationships. Up until this year this type of arrangement always seemed really good to me, but now it seems to be almost necessary. Here’s why.

School has changed – even in the short timeframe (nine years) I have been teaching. We now have Common Core and Race to the Top – both of which have brought significant changes to every classroom in America. But beyond (and within) some of the shifting lingo, there is a great deal more being asked of our young students today than there once was. I think we all agree about that. As these expectations rise, the skills required to teach these disciplines does as well. Is a generalist expected to be an expert in all of these subjects (reading, math, science, social studies, writing, and health)? Don’t get me wrong, there are amazing generalists out there, but the job has gotten more and more difficult to the point where there probably just aren’t enough. I think it’s time to (re) consider having more specialists in the elementary schools. How about a math department that can coordinate and deliver a closely planned sequence of instruction for all of the students in an entire school? They would be able to deeply collaborate about math (or their shared math students) and not have to worry about “the other subjects.” In an era of ever-increasing teacher and student expectations, taking on everything in an elementary curriculum is a tremendous load.

Consider too that this model of teaching has impacted my professional development. Because I was so deeply engaged in mathematics, I was able to take on a master’s degree in math education in the evenings and summers without it being completely overwhelming. Not that it was easy, but all of the mental energy was inline with the rest of my work, so it fit. In addition to the master’s degree, I also added a high school math endorsement to my teaching certificate. This deeper grasp of math helps me better prepare my students for higher mathematics. A few years after I finished the master’s I pursued National Board Certification – equally rigorous, and deeply beneficial to my practice. This too was in line with my teaching practice as I certified in Early Adolescent Mathematics. Now, six years into this specialized program, I have developed a much deeper expertise in teaching math to young students.

The job of teaching is difficult on its own, but if that wasn’t enough there are often big changes that take place from year to year. This year my district adopted a new math curriculum for K-5. It takes a great deal of work outside of my contracted hours to learn a new program and prepare to teach it. In my case, I get to teach each lesson three times a day. My single prep is also made that much easier due to the depth of my content and pedagogical knowledge. Then there is the speed at which I become proficient with the material. Before winter break most elementary teachers will have taught about 70 math lessons, while I will have taught 210. Student learning outcomes surely improve with all of that experience. At the same time, changes coming down the pike in English Language Arts fall upon the shoulders of my more-than-capable colleagues.

Hung-Hsi Wu wrote an in-depth article making the case for elementary math specialists a few years ago, but I would suggest that similar arguments could be made for every discipline. What do you think?

My Growth around Student Growth

student growth

We have always cared about our students’ growth. If we didn’t care about that, then we probably weren’t doing our jobs.

We’re quickly nearing that time when all things TPEP “go live” and are real for all of us. Many districts have invested time, training, and honest effort into preparing teachers for this coming moment, and I’m hoping that it will pay off.

As I shared here, my growth toward understanding student growth took time. I needed the past two years of learning to really get to a point where I now feel like it all makes sense. Best of all, the way my district has implemented, I know that even if I stumble, need to change course, or decide to make revisions, this is actually a valued step in the process, not a sign of ineffective teaching.

What I’ve learned:

First and foremost: students achieving standard and student growth are not the same thing. Growth is about every kid making appropriate movement toward a goal–not every kid scoring X on an assessment.  This is why the old SMART goals of “85% of my period 5 will score 80% or better on the chapter test” doesn’t cut it here. Instead, it is about moving every kid toward higher proficiency at a skill, not just a higher score on a test. The challenge for me is actually with my high-fliers…those kids who come in not only ready to learn but with high skills. Growth (for me) has always been easier to cultivate with kids who have a long way to go. This system reminds me that I still need to foster growth for those kids who enter at or above standard already.

As important: growth and grades should be two different things. This is a hard one for many high school teachers. We work with proficiency scales to describe growth, and so often I get the question “How do I convert my scale to a grade? Is a 4 an A, 3 a B and so on?” This is a major shift: growth monitoring and grades communicate two different things. The grade is how many baskets you can sink in a game, the growth monitoring is when the coach keeps track of your shooting form and gives feedback on how to improve. My answer to the conversion question? You don’t convert a scale to a grade…they are two different things.

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McCleary and Adequate Progress

File5414fdd030f69By Mark

The Seattle Times posted a couple of days ago that the Washington State Supreme Court has found the state legislature in contempt for failing to make adequate progress toward the mandate issued in the McCleary case. (Quick review from the Times link above "in 2012, the Supreme Court … ordered the state to increase education spending enough to fulfill the Washington state Legislature’s own definition of what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement of providing a basic education to all Washington children," emphasis mine).

Obviously, I'm in favor of the legislature funding schools to meet their own definition of basic education. However, when I typed the first sentence above, I almost inserted "yearly" between "failing to make adequate" and "progress."

Considering the letters that many schools had to send home to parents about not meeting "adequate yearly progress," this idea has been in my head a great deal lately.

My own school's failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (we're in Step 2 despite test passing rates high enough that the state cannot even report them because of privacy laws) and the legislature's failure to make adequate progress toward funding solutions both seem to come with consequences. Paradoxically, my school's failure to meet AYP means funding set-asides, program restrictions, and letters home to parents…while I have not yet managed to sort out how a contempt finding actually will sting, since there is only a threat of sanctions should the 2015 legislative session be less than productive.

The big difference: the punishments related to AYP failure result from the fact that AYP expectations are plainly unrealistic. I believe that it is realistic for the legislature to meet its obligation and avoid whatever sanctions the court might determine. 

Here's the real question: how will your school or your classroom be different when public education in Washington is funded the way the legislature itself says it should be? These stories of what can be–not the stories of what we don't have, so easily dismissed as idle complaining–will have the potential to move policymakers forward.


Previous StoriesFromSchool posts about the McCleary decision:


I Love My Job

1024px-Heart_corazón.svgBy Tom White

Regular readers of this blog might get the impression that we’re a bunch of unhappy teachers. After all, much of what we write about deals with our concerns for the teaching professional and our complaints about some of the policies that shape the world in which we work. And it’s true! We do have concerns and we do have complaints. However, I think I speak for the whole writing team when I say that despite my concerns and complaints, I overwhelmingly love this job!

I love the people I work with. I’m not talking about the other teachers, although they’re great people; I’m talking about the kids with whom I spend most of my time. Fourth graders have such an infectious sense of joy and innocence that for seven hours every weekday you would never know that there were any problems in West Africa, Eastern Europe or North St. Louis. Fourth graders are open and honest; they laugh when they’re happy, cry when they’re hurt and skip when they’re supposed to walk. I wish we could all be like fourth graders, but we can’t, so I’ll take the next best thing.

I love the fact that society trusts me to do something so important. There are 27 families that send their kids to my classroom every day, confident that I’ll consistently keep them safe and get them ready for a successful future. Thirty years ago, when I was first starting, that overwhelming responsibility kept me up at night. Now it just keeps me busy during the day. Really busy. I get up every morning, eager to get to work and come home every night exhausted but happy with what I’ve done.

I love the extra stuff. Starting about fifteen years ago, I realized that there were opportunities for teachers to extend their skills and knowledge beyond the classroom. So I began doing extra stuff. The hardest part – for me, anyway – was letting go of my classroom every once in a while. But I finally realized that with clear lesson plans in the hands of a decent substitute, things will be just fine without me. And any problems that occur are more than offset by insuring that teachers have a voice in the profession. Extra stuff can be fun. Although I’ve never done anything outside the classroom that was as fun or as important as teaching, I’ve met some wonderful people and traveled all over the country working on interesting and important projects.

So don’t get the wrong idea from our blog. Yes, we have concerns and yes, we’ll have complaints. But we still love what we do.