Yesterday at the Universal Blueford School, a struggling West Philadelphia charter school, Mitt Romney remarked that smaller class sizes are not significant in determining the success of our public school students. Already this has caused a considerable amount of heated opposition, and—indeed—one’s own intuition seems to reject Romney’s statement.
After all, parents and teachers aren’t advocating for more students and a higher student/teacher ratio in their schools. On the contrary, they’re fighting for smaller class sizes to ensure that each child is able to receive more individualized attention and one-on-one time to assist student comprehension.
Romney is often criticized for being “out of touch” with the American people (e.g. Biden, Baldwin, even the Auto Workers’ Union), and this may appear to be one more instance in support of that opinion. While I disagree with dismissing altogether the significance of class size as a factor, I do think that much of his statement was taken out of context.
Granted, it is an election year, so there will be an understandable amount of “tweaking” to what members of each political party say. However, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith’s rhetorical response that “Larger class sizes are the answer to a better education?” demonstrates just how far Romney’s initial statement has been pushed.
Instead, Romney’s main point is that “it’s not the the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems.” This is significantly distinct from the purported claim that class sizes don’t matter at all, and I think this claim is the real message behind Romney’s stance that has—regrettably—gotten lost in the political circus. Of course, smaller class sizes and student achievement are often linked, but it is not the size itself that matters, but rather the ability of teachers to identify weaknesses and provide personalized attention to students in need. Obviously, this is all facilitated by smaller classes, but it is ultimately the motivation of the teachers to inspire academic confidence and promote a healthy learning environment that makes the real difference.
I do feel strongly about ensuring a fair shake for both candidates (as long as they’re willing to play fairly in the first place). Romney has managed to alienate a large number of Americans through both comments and practices, and he is solely responsible for those results. However, it is important to listen to the whole message and remember that—while we can interpret his statements as an attack of “larger vs. smaller class sizes”—addressing the issue of class size would be treating the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.