It's culture, not just class size

In his Blowback, "Stop cheering on charter schools," Mathew C. Taylor mentions California's high teacher-student ratios as problematic for the state. Other union leaders and Los Angeles school administrators also needle teachers with the ever-looming threat of increasing class size. Then someone who does "studies" declares that class size is not a factor in learning, and the arguments begin.

As a classroom teacher for more than 20 years, let me try to clarify why the issue of class size is more than just counting bodies in a room or the number of papers teachers have to grade. Class size is not the issue, really; it's the culture of the class that matters. I do not mean racial or ethnic or socioeconomic culture, I mean the culture of a particular group of students in a particular room in a particular institution.

I have two 10th-grade classes of about 30 students each. One of them is an "honors" class; the other, "regular." In my honors class, the 30 students are engaged and demanding. They probe texts, cultivate questions, encourage discourse and write analytically. My regular class, on the other hand, is allergic to homework; students belch aloud and feel no shame because this is "just school"; they bully and curse at one another; they cannot sit still; they cannot listen; and their distraction is heightened by the gadgets they carry.

Each of these classes has its own culture. At the root of the culture are expectations -- mine and theirs. In both classes my expectations exceed the students', as it should be, but in the honors class, the students feed on one another's enthusiasm. Sometimes the parts fare worse than the whole, but when the whole grows, so do the individuals. In the regular class, the parts are often better than the whole, but when the whole fails, as it too often does, so do the individuals.

The best students in the regular class often collapse under the weight of the apathetic, the rude, the defiant, the indolent mass that defines that class' culture.

Some call what I am describing "institutional racism," which bluntly put occurs when minority students are pre-judged as non-learners, and in turn these same students pre-judge their teachers as non-teachers. No one expects anything from anyone in such a situation, and when that happens, chaos usually ensues. Many teachers bring rigorous expectations to all classes and fight every day for respect that a good teacher trying to provide a good education deserves. But for some, once they face entrenched negative expectations from everyone around them, they give up, resort to work sheets, and hope for the best but expect the worst. Other teachers plow on, despite the ambient negativity, and use all their energy to keep expectations high even if spirits remain low, only to receive letters at the end of the year that say things like, "Thank you for fighting us and making us learn," or "You never gave up on us, thank you!" Each student knows the culture is greater than his or her own efforts, and each hopes that the teacher will change the culture, if just a little. But with 30 or more to one, and often little to no parent support, the odds of that are at best slim.

In Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," invisibility translates to a lack of individuality and signifies how being looked at is not the same as being seen. When one is invisible in any culture, one feels no sense of personal motivation or accountability. Class-size reduction is one very important way to change the culture. Being able to look each student in the eye, to touch each student on the shoulder, to make each student feel responsible for his or her behavior is impossible when the room feels like one huge organism that has devoured individuals and turned them into a monstrous mass. With an environment that allows us the ability to give attention where attention is needed, we can all accomplish more. With an environment that allows us the ability to see one another as individuals, despite the enforced limitations of an obsolete institution like the Los Angeles Unified School District, we might even exceed all our expectations.

Pamela Felcher is English department chair at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.

Blowback is an online forum for full-length responses to our articles, editorials and Op-Ed articles. Click here to read more about Blowback, or submit your own by e-mailing us at

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World