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Commentary: First, We Have to Stop the Overcrowding

Ellie Herman | November 1, 2013

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imagesIn Dennis Danziger’s English class at Venice High, they play musical chairs every day; if you come in late, you don’t get a desk and have to sit in a chair on the sidelines. Unfortunately, they’re not playing for fun. They’re playing because his class of 50 students is so overcrowded the students can barely fit into the room. Cynthia Castillo, at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles, is luckier; she has enough desk space for the 44 students enrolled in her first-period English class.

I’m an English teacher. This year, I’m taking time off from the classroom to observe high school English teachers across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles. As I do, I’m stunned to find that teachers in LAUSD high schools often have classes of 40, 45 and 50 students. Dennis’s and Cynthia’s classes are not weird aberrations—these days, classes of over 40 are common, not just in the classes I observe but in any class I hear about from other teachers. Current official averages are difficult to find, but whatever the official numbers may be, I’m here to tell you that LAUSD high schools often are packing so many kids into classrooms that it’s amazing anyone’s learning anything at all.

This overcrowding is a shame in middle-class neighborhoods, where parents sometimes have to fundraise to pay personally for additional teachers and aides. But in low-income neighborhoods, it is a scandal. How can we talk about narrowing the achievement gap between low-income minority children and upper-middle-class children when we pack at-risk kids into classes where no teacher, however excellent, could possibly get to know them, much less work with them closely?

In the neighborhood where Cynthia Castillo teaches, which has the highest level of violent crime in the city and where homicide is the most frequent cause of premature death, around 20 percent of the students have spent time in foster care. Some are gang members, struggling to stay in school so they can make a new life. In Dennis’s class, one boy, a terrific poet who writes harrowing pieces about his crack-addicted mother, has recently gotten out of juvie and is working to turn his life around. But Cynthia and Dennis will get little time to work individually with any of these students. After all, they teach 5 such classes a day. Though officially, student load per teacher is capped at 200, I’ve heard of teachers with as many as 230 students across their five or six periods a day.

Currently in education, there is a delusional belief—I simply have no other description for it—that class size doesn’t matter if a teacher is good enough. I could cite you studies refuting the thin, unpersuasive evidence bolstering this delusion, and I could point you to studies showing the impact of generational poverty on children and how essential it is for at-risk kids to have a relationship with a caring adult in order to learn, but really, anyone who’s ever been a human being knows that cramming low-income children of color into classes of 45 or 50 and then claiming that we’re going to close the achievement gap is just nonsense. Nobody could possibly believe this.

And yet we do. Because, every day we politely, or not so politely, debate about how exactly to implement the Common Core standards, on whose rollout California will spend a billion dollars, or about when our students will take the Common Core tests, on which California will likely spend another billion dollars, or about how to make better firewalls for the iPads on which Los Angeles alone has already spent a billion dollars. It’s as if, in showering all this money on products, we’ve developed some kind of terrible shopping disorder, the kind that fills a need so desperate we’re afraid to face it.

But it doesn’t matter how much we spend on new protocols or tests or gadgets that we fantasize will do the complex, time-consuming, idiosyncratic and fundamentally human work of teaching another person to think logically and critically. If we care as much as we claim to about closing the achievement gap, we need to stop warehousing our most low-income students of color in outrageously overcrowded classrooms and start creating the conditions in which a student might be able to learn. We need to lower class size in LAUSD middle and high schools. Drastically. And immediately.

Otherwise, everything else is noise.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.


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