It’s the one that is perfect for the specific situation. In my work in online education for a school management company, we’re constantly asked about our student:teacher ratios. There’s an instant knee jerk reaction. “Education researchers” from prestigious universities will look at those ratios and declare that they don’t “make sense”. Note: I am purposely not linking to the original article which quoted this guy since his basic math was wrong…no need to embarrass him like that. Not to mention the fact that those calculations didn’t take into account the total number of teachers serving each student.
The one thing he did get right was that it doesn’t make sense…when you try to view online education through the lens of traditional school settings. Let’s think about this.
When I taught in a North Philadelphia face-to-face middle school, I had 5 classes of about 28 students. Now a 1:28 ratio in a middle school program wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, right? But guess what? It was way too high…for THAT environment. The level of behavioral issues I needed to deal with completely prevented me from doing much teaching at all. Maybe, you’d argue it was my poor classroom management skills or boring curriculum. And maybe you’d be right. But the point is that the ratio was too high for those students in that classroom with that teacher instructing those courses. Change the teacher? Change the students? Change the courses? Maybe the ratio would be okay.
But the belief that there is a ‘Golden Ratio’ that is just right for every course simply demonstrates a small-minded and limited approach to the topic. What if you had a self-guided curriculum developed out of research on how best to instruct on each topic and which allows for self-paced learning? And what if there is literally no classroom management required: no writing out bathroom passes, no stopping notes from being passed around, and no breaking up fights in the hallway? And what if every students’ progress through these self-paced lessons could be monitored daily by the teacher, including clear reports as to what students were, and were not, understanding? What if your main job was to provide additional help and instruction – as needed – to small groups of students?
No daily lesson planning. No classroom management. Direct and almost immediate feedback on student learning and remediation needs. The ability to work with individual and small groups of students.
Think you could teach more than 28 students in each of 5 sections? Probably, right? In fact if you didn’t, you might find yourself without a lot to do…and taxpayers just love paying those who serve the public to sit around bored all day.
Now, think of a course that relies almost exclusively on students performing research and taking part in very active classroom discussions. Could you run 5 classes at a 1:28 ratio? Probably not. In fact having conversations that involved 28 students at a time would be in itself untenable.
There is, in fact, no perfect teacher:student ratio. Instead, teacher:student ratios need to be calculated based on the many factors that impact a teacher’s ability to be effective and the students’ ability to learn, including things like:
- The instructional methods employed in the course
- The delivery mode (e.g. digital, print, in-person)
- The learning environment (e.g. size of the room, speed of student internet connections)
- Level of experience and expertise of the teacher
- Level of students’ skills (e.g. if you have a lot of kids who are several years below grade level, you’re ratio might need to shrink)
- The pace of the course (e.g. you might need a lower ratio for a faster-paced course)
So the next time you read about an “expert” making a broad claim as to the appropriateness of a student:teacher ratio, or your district flaunts a really low ratio as proof of a quality education, don’t take it at face value. Remember, there’s more behind teacher:student ratios than they’ll lead you to believe. Less isn’t always more.