In his recent op-ed, David Brooks argued that students learn better from people they love. He recounted a story of how the emotional connection between him and his students at Yale strengthened after he told them of a personal issue he was dealing with. The learning environment in his classroom improved markedly for the remainder of the school term, according to him. Reading the article reminded me of experiences I had in school during childhood, and later as a teacher.
Love and empathy were entirely alien concepts in the schools I attended as a young boy in Ghana. Rather, many of the teachers there were outright abusive. Corporal punishment was allowed in the country’s education system, and it appeared as though some of my teachers looked for reasons to administer it—in brutal fashion—as often as they could.
A student could receive several cane lashes for something as simple as getting a few wrong answers on a math quiz. Others were similarly punished for being late to school, although they had perfectly valid reasons for it. It was a “no-excuses” environment where many of us lived in persistent fear. Making matters worse, those dreadful punishments were almost always meted out in classrooms, with all students present. The constant anxiety and humiliation forced a few children to drop out of school each year.
Nearly two decades after I graduated from that authoritarian system, I became a teacher in an inner-city public school in America. On my first day on the job, I was confronted with an utterly chaotic classroom that bewildered me. The behavioral problems I witnessed in the subsequent days and months, not only in my classes but also throughout the school, would have been unimaginable in my childhood schools in Ghana.
Having only recently arrived in America, I had no idea what I was dealing with. It took a while for me to begin to understand the racial, socio-economic, cultural, and political factors that underlie the dysfunction in America’s inner-city public education system. The majority of my students were children of color, and many of them, it turned out, came from broken homes. They lacked many of the support systems that every child needs to grow up, and to do well in school.
As an emotion, fear can either be positive or negative. The type that ended some of my classmates’ education prematurely was clearly of the undesirable variety. When children take their education seriously, it is often a result of someone convincing them that failure to do so would have detrimental consequences for them in adulthood. And that fear is usually instilled indirectly in the form of gentle guidance provided by parents, or some other loved ones. Unfortunately for many of my inner-city students, they did not have someone at home playing that critical role.
There were children in my classes who were clearly smart and had the potential to succeed if they worked hard, but were not taking advantage of their opportunities in school, partly because of their own disciplinary issues, and also due to everything else going on around them. I did the best I could to steer some of them in the right direction. Sadly, I achieved only limited success because with about twenty-five students in each class I taught, I couldn’t devote the required level of time and attention.
Author and family therapist Marilyn Wedge has written extensively about the need to maintain a nurturing environment in schools to help children learn. In a 2013 article, she enumerated certain traumatic stresses, such as parents’ divorce and domestic violence, which affect children’s brains in ways that negatively impact their learning ability. She stressed that children’s emotional needs should be carefully attended to not only in classrooms, but also wherever they are in the school setting.
Education reform experts have consistently pointed to small class sizes as one of the best ways to improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged children. It allows teachers to develop close bonds with their students who need the care. However, that is an expensive proposition; many states are unable to sustain their class-size reduction (CSR) initiatives because of budgetary constraints. In a 2011 Brookings paper, Matthew Chingos and Grover Whitehurst calculated that increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in the U.S. by one student would cost about $12 billion per year in teacher salaries alone, an amount which, according to the authors, is about equal to the annual funding for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the largest federal government K-12 education program.
Chingos and Whitehurst cited analysis of Tennessee’s CSR program by the late Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who determined that after four years, elementary school students who were randomly assigned to small classes with an average of 15 students (versus the regular class average of 22 students) demonstrated an increase in student achievement equivalent to about 3 months of additional schooling. Krueger’s analysis also showed that black students, economically disadvantaged students, and boys benefited the most from small class sizes.
Nothing, of course, can substitute for parental love. The nurturing that such students need to thrive in school should primarily be provided at home. Life is indeed difficult for all sorts of reasons in the communities from which my students came. But every parent owes it to his or her children to do whatever it takes to help break the multi-generational cycle of poverty in which too many families are sadly trapped.
Our dysfunctional public schools constitute a national emergency that requires commensurate resources to address. Teachers, by their nature, will readily provide the love and support that some of their students do not, unfortunately, receive at home. But they need help. Continuing to cut education funding, which leads to larger class sizes, is precisely the wrong approach.