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Guest opinion: Large class sizes endanger our students

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Science classrooms in Utah are overflowing with students. Why does that matter? Class size is an ongoing issue in Utah, going back much further than my 22 years as a science educator. It affects achievement, test scores, individual attention, paperwork and classroom behavior at all levels. Studies document this, and any teacher can support the findings.

In science classrooms, class size is also a safety issue for both students and teachers. Given the hands-on nature of science classes, the lab requirements for middle and high school science and the liability that science teachers have in the lab, it is time we addressed it. As we enter the new legislative session, where many legislators are looking at cutting rather than increasing education funding, I encourage those who make the decisions to consider the data.

The National Science Teachers Association, or NSTA, recommends that science classes be no larger than 24 students — no exceptions. NSTA studied accident data which shows that classroom accidents increase exponentially when a class is larger than 24 students, which is really the cutoff to keep students safe while still being able to give them hands-on experiences. It is important to note that I do not have a single class that is that small, and neither do any of my colleagues. This year I am lucky to have a class average of 32 — a record low.

I commented about this a few of months ago on Twitter, and received this response from state Sen. Lyle Hillyard: “State legislature should not be trying to fix an isolated problem in one or two districts.” Based on my experience — and official data — this is not an isolated problem.

It turns out that the state of Utah has collected information that proves my point, and the results are scary. Utah.gov has access to information on class size by school district, subject and grade level. I chose to focus on science not only because it is my area of expertise, but because lab safety is a specific concern that teachers are held liable for, regardless of class size, though safety is as big an issue in career and technical education classes, foods, shop and any other hands-on classes.

Taking 24 students as a reasonable recommendation for class size. Twenty-six of the 40 Utah school districts have a higher average in most science classes. When averaging all science classes together, it turns out that 60% of the districts in Utah are above 24. If you take out physics, a more advanced course that some districts don’t offer, that jumps to 70%. The worst was in earth science in Granite District, where the average class size was 50 students. Biology, chemistry and physics all had averages that were above 30 students in at least seven districts. Even in small districts such as Iron County or Juab, the classes average 30 and more in most science classes. When you average all science classes together in each district, Cache School District has the highest student average at 40.3, followed by Alpine, Wasatch, Davis, Granite, Jordan and Logan. The lowest average is Tintic, with a class average of eight students. Note that Cache serves about 15,000 students as opposed to Tintic with 228. 

The data says it all. Class size is a widespread problem for science classes in Utah. It is not “an isolated problem,” but instead one that it is imperative for the state legislature to address. Our students are more likely to be injured if we continue to cram an unsafe number of students into our science classrooms. This is true in any subject, but particularly true in classrooms where students are regularly asked to experiment and solve problems creatively with a variety of tools and equipment.

Many teachers address the problem by simply not having labs, or only allowing online simulations. This results in a diminished learning experience for students. It is only a matter of time before a serious injury occurs. After all, look at the data.

JoAnne Brown is a science teacher at Olympus Junior High School and the science department chair of the Granite School District.