It’s no secret that Detroit is struggling. With massive unemployment, citywide financial issues and thousands of citizens having their water shut off, Detroit residents have faced a lot of grief in recent years. Now, it seems that the city is having to make some tough – and questionable — decisions concerning early education, as well. Faced with limited resources, Detroit’s Brenda Scott Academy has placedmore than 90 kindergarten students in a single classroom.
To be fair, there are three teachers in the room. Throughout the day, the kids break into three different groups for subjects like reading, math, and writing. They are grouped by ability, with each teacher taking the high, medium, or low bunch. At other times, all of the 90-something students come together for a larger group activity.
Still, even when the teachers are at a 30+ students to teacher ratio, that’s three times greater than the class size recommended by early education experts. Not only do kindergarteners need more individualized attention to reach educational and social goals at that age, they benefit from developing a relationship with a single, caring teacher. Research suggests that high-poverty-and-risk students (i.e. the majority of students in this enlarged classroom) especially benefit from having more direct time with a teacher.
The school, which calls the large classroom an “experiment,” is pleased with the outcome thus far. Principal Marques Stewart has defended the program, saying, “Research has shown smaller sizes work, but this model has pretty much in a sense, early on, has kind of proved that wrong.”
However, the Washington Post correctly questions the logic behind the principal declaring decades of educational theory “wrong” based on five months of experience in a single classroom and no measurable data to offer up as counter evidence.
The parents of the students in the class have given the program mixed reviews. While they agree the teachers are making the most of the situation, they wish their children could be part of a smaller classroom environment. “They could make the class smaller to allow more teacher time with each student,” said father Arthur Hill. “When you have a lot of kids together, it’s hard at that age to get their attention.”
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have started speaking out against the supposed educational oversight that allowed a nearly 100 person classroom to be established in the first place. “It’s the latest example of how the EAA [Education Achievement Authority] fails at-risk kids in high-poverty schools in Detroit,” declared Democrat Representatives Brandon Dillon and Ellen Lipton in a prepared statement.
Two of the three teachers in the classroom aren’t exactly veterans in the field that would understand how to navigate the circumstances: it’s one teacher’s second year in the profession and the other’s first year on the job. Meanwhile, the veteran and lead teacher, Michaela McArthur, is all of 30 years old. Although age does not determine whether someone is a good or bad teacher, just about any teacher will tell you that teachers need a few years on the job before they can feel successful, so giving new teachers an overwhelming number of students to start might not be the best approach.
McArthur seems to acknowledge that it’s a desperate move out of necessity when speaking to the Detroit Free Press. “Ideally, we’d love to have more staff, but I think we do the kids a good service with what we have,” she said.
While it’s entirely fair for school districts to tinker with structures to find a recipe for success for their students, this particular plan reeks of shafting the most at-risk students with limited resources and calling it a “new” approach to education.