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When It Comes to Education Policy, Should We Give Class Size Another Look?

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Guest post by Maya Rockeymoore.

Watching Chapter Two of A Year at Mission Hill brought to mind the theme song from Cheers, the popular 80's sitcom "where everybody knows your name." There is indeed something special about a school where everyone knows your name and where the adults are intentionally focused on creating a community that respects individuality while teaching youth lifetime lessons on how to interact well in groups.

Reflecting on the intimacy conveyed in the video caused me ponder how schools across the country can replicate the type of community that Mission Hill, a school of just 170 students, seems to engender. The first thought that comes to mind is a focus on class size. For the past few decades, policy advocates have pushed for smaller class sizes in the hopes that more intimate learning environments can improve academic outcomes.

Although the studies on this approach have shown mixed results, the evidence is heavily weighted toward smaller class sizes making a significant difference for younger students and students of color. Given the ongoing quest to enhance the quality of education, it seems reasonable to argue that smaller class sizes should continue to be at the top of the policy agenda even in the face of other pressing priorities.

The Mission Hill video highlights the importance of personalized learning environments in other ways. Jenerra Williams, a 3rd grade teacher featured in the video, summed it up nicely when she said, "You have to know them (the students) to teach them well. And when you know them so well, you just naturally become their advocate." The art of knowing students well -- by understanding who they are, what they like, and how they are feeling -- seems to be a common sense approach that should be an integral part of teacher training programs.

There are a 101 reasons to question whether the type of teacher autonomy embraced by the Mission Hill school would be successful if replicated in schools across the country. But this too begs the question about how well aspiring teachers are trained in schools of education, inducted into the classroom environment, and mentored over the course of their careers. The fact that Mission Hill students and teachers seem to be thriving in an autonomous learning environment shows that it can be achieved. Yet, how should our teacher training programs be revamped to reinforce the skills and responsibilities that comes with managing this type of classroom environment?

Finally, in the age of fill-in-the-bubble testing, elevating the importance of "habits of mind" is a transformative way to promote the intellectual development of students while reinforcing practices that strengthen our communities and democracy.

When I think of the divisive nature of our national and global politics, I wonder how different the world would be if the habits of mind were an essential part of the learning experience of all people. Towards this goal, rethinking the curriculum so that it incorporates the critical higher order thinking skills reinforced by this approach should be embraced as a way to make U.S. education, and the people it produces, more relevant in the age of globalization.

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments.

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