Student relationships are at the core of what I do as an educator. When people ask me what I do, my response is usually, "I teach kids math." Notice what came first? Kids. Then my content-area.
Over the past few years, however, there has been such a drive for content that we as an education system are losing the drive we once had. I've been thinking about this a lot in the context of cyber schools in general and the one the School District of Philadelphia wants to open in particular. The choice to invest money into cyber schools is a sensitive one at both a District and State level - it involves funding, politics, and most importantly kids. The main thing that often gets left out in the conversation, however, is that idea of relationship-building between student and teacher that could case amazing outcomes for students across the spectrum. How can a student sitting at a keyboard using online software be as engaged with their teacher as someone in the same room?
Even if I am in the same room, though, how do I focus my attention between 33 kids in a class (the legal limit in Philadelphia). Class sizes have ballooned so much I sometimes forget things my students tell me - a fact I am trying to fix but find it difficult when I have to remember what happened with 150 students every day. Honestly, I can tell you I am unable to forge the kind of strong relationships that foster good teaching with that number of students.
Articles like this one dating back to 1988 report on the importance of lowering class size. And this one from 1998 focuses on Philadelphia in particular, mentioning the need to reduce class size to help student achievement. While recent research focuses on the teacher as the most important in-school factor for student success, I would argue that my quality diminishes with more and more students in my room. It takes me longer to grade assignments so I make easier ones; my feedback is less thorough so students learn slower; I am forced to focus on content to the detriment of my student's feelings on the subject leading to more math anxiety.
If we as a society are serious about improving education we need to make sure to invest in it. As said in The Centennial Anniversary of Public Schools of Philadelphia, "A school system that is not costing a great deal these days is not worth a great deal."