The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) is a union that consists of approximately 33,000 teachers based around the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The goal of this union is to help teachers, but most importantly, according to the UTLA, is to “do what’s best for the classroom and the kids in them.” Recently, thousands of these L.A. teachers went on a seven-day strike to fight for specific demands ranging from more investment in education and reduction in class sizes. Since L.A. is “the nation’s second-largest public school system,” their absence has made a sizeable impact on both the students and the district, leaving more than half a million students without classes to attend during the strike.
The reasons behind the strike seem to be basic and fair demands, especially something like smaller class sizes, which is essential for proper academic education. Smaller class sizes allow for better educational growth and improvement, especially for disadvantaged children living in lower income households. Usually there are 30 to 40 students per class, which limits the teacher’s ability to teach well and focus on students at an individual level.
Fortunately, the demands of the teachers from this recent strike were met. They negotiated “an immediate reduction of 7 students” per classroom and the district could “no longer ignore all class size averages and caps.” This agreement is a key victory given how class sizes have been debated for many years.
Sid Bourke, an education professor at the University of Newcastle, did a study of year five mathematics in Australia, where he found that teachers with smaller class sizes taught differently than with large class sizes. With smaller class sizes, teachers would provide more “whole class teaching,” students wouldn’t need to ask questions, and teachers would be able to probe more by asking more open ended questions that led to deeper discussions and critical thinking. Bourke believed all of these factors contribute to higher academic attainment for students, especially for disadvantaged children who may take longer to process certain concepts. Additionally, the London Institute of Education also did a study to find out if class size affected progress in literacy and math. They found that in both subjects, smaller class sizes benefitted students of all learning abilities.
Some studies claim there is contradicting evidence. Stan M. Shapson, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University, did a similar study to Bourke and found different results. He found only a small relationship between class sizes and student achievement. To rebut this, however, qualitative data demonstrates a consistent correlation between smaller class sizes and increased teacher performance. Although there is some contradicting data, most research points to small class sizes affecting teaching in a positive manner.
The Los Angeles public school district has “one of the highest concentrations of low-income students in the state.” Having this in mind, it is very important to do everything we can to help students from low-income backgrounds. In an article in “Trends in Cognitive Sciences,” neuroscientists Daniel A. Hackman and Martha J. Farah explain differences in neurocognitive performances related to socioeconomic status. They found that, “infants from lower [income] families are, on average, less advanced in the working memory and inhibitory control abilities.” This means that it is difficult for students from a lower socioeconomic status to pay attention in class and focus. Due to the fact that these skills are harder for them, it makes learning in a classroom setting very difficult. It is important that teachers cater to these students in order for them to succeed, and since evidence points to a smaller class size helping with learning ability, then they should be able to have that.
The L.A. teacher strikes have sparked up attention regarding smaller class sizes. Smaller class sizes are highly beneficial to everyone, especially low-income and low-ability students. Smaller class sizes allow for more one-on-one conversations, leading to better academic achievement. With L.A. being one of the leading school districts with low-income student households, it is important we do everything we can to facilitate an encouraging learning environment. We should look at the outcome of the L.A.strikes as an example for other schools to take class size into consideration when it comes to creating a better learning environment.