I spent most of this Saturday morning on the couch fighting in vain against a cold that has been going around my family. With a remote control in hand, I perused the hundreds of channels for hours because I didn’t have the energy for anything too engaging and I didn’t have the patience for anything too banal. And so, I ended up watching a little bit of a lot of shows and TV movies.
After watching “Sid the Science Kid” for a few minutes and “Dino Dan” on a couple of kids’ networks, I caught a few minutes of some classic movies from the past 30 years. It was four hours into this mind-numbing marathon that something occurred to me. Ever the vigilant scientist (even when mucus was threatening to drown my brain), I tested my hypothesis. It took a couple more hours of “research” with the remote (and later with my mouse) to backup my findings with hard facts.
In over 30 different television shows and movies, ranging from 1975 to 2010, and across all genres of comedy, drama, horror, and animation, one startling fact stood out. Whether it be “Welcome Back Kotter” or “Happy Days”, “Red Dawn” or “Saved By The Bell”, the facts were pretty much the same. In almost no instance was there any class larger than 12 students*.
I racked my brain to figure out why. Perhaps the creators of these programs and films were simply trying to save money on extras. Maybe it’s their way of portraying the ideal situation (like so many appearances of Macs instead of PCs on air). Personally, though, I think that it’s not too different from the relatively low number of minorities and homosexual characters that can be found, even today, on screens big and small. I believe that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of a single adult faced with using all of her expertise to adapt instruction to the needs of each and every child while engaging all of them simultaneously… with 35 seats filled. They know that this is a virtual impossibility. They understand that no human can create the atmosphere necessary to pull three dozen children into every lesson all the time. They want to think of us as Supermen, but their imaginations can only stretch so far.
And so, Hollywood “fills” classes with 8-12 eager bodies (aside from the two obnoxious ones passing notes), and goes on telling American viewers that this is what a classroom looks like. Even when most Americans know that this is dishonest. But, as H.L. Mencken said, “The truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.” We so desperately want to believe that it is the ineffective teachers dragging our system down.
I know many who disagree, but I believe strongly that class size is the most serious hurdle to improving American public education. Unfortunately, it is also the most formidable because the only solution to it is more funding, more schools, and more teachers. When a flu bug causes absentee rates at my school to hit the double digits, I see a real difference in how my class operates and how much meaningful learning is taking place.
So, what do you think? Am I way off?
*I purposely avoided inspirational movies featured one superhuman teacher in a wretched setting (e.g., Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, and The Ron Clark Story) in which the entire point is to portray a seemingly insurmountable situation. Ironically, even most of these had class sizes lower than mine.