Sizing it up

1986_regGarrett Delavan, author of The Teacher’s Attention, explains what prompted him to write a book about class size—and why smaller is better.

When I set out to write The Teacher’s Attention I’d been teaching for about six years in a second-chance high school. I was always amazed when teachers from other schools said how difficult that must be and how they admired me. I loved my job and couldn’t believe I got paid to hang out with these amazing young people.

But that got me thinking about why some classes were harder than others and why these other teachers thought my job was so much harder. I figured out that the difference was class size, which varied immensely in my school. These were frustrating (and frustrated) kids when my classes were large, which is the only size the teachers at the traditional schools ever got.

So I started out looking to read a book—not write one—about why small classes are better than big, and to explain why most everyone you talk to finds this obvious. It might also be a book that would then try to change the reader’s mind about the other thing most everyone thinks needs no further discussion: They’re too expensive. It turned out the books out there on class size focused primarily on test scores (and grades K-3) and not the positive relationships that make teaching more enjoyable and compulsory schooling more ethical.

Eventually my research led me to include school size and the length of time teachers and students stay together as just as important factors for cultivating mentoring relationships. I decided to opt out of the myth that our schools are academic failures (on average) and focus instead on school’s participation in American childrearing and racial injustice. What the book became was a school reform proposal that disputes the need for better average test scores and argues instead for a straightforward path to raising better-mentored kids and equalizing achievement.

While the book was in its final edits, I moved to a traditional middle school to gain more perspective on the system I’m criticizing. Yesterday I was at work getting set up in our new building and several teachers remarked with laughter that the new computer lab had only 30 computers. “What do we do with the rest of the class?” Last year I had to add two more desks to the thirty-six I started with. I asked the counselor my numbers this year and none was over thirty. I breathed a sigh of relief. He told me not to sigh yet because there was still a registration day coming up.

I may be ranting and raving this year on A Small Class Size Blog at

One Response

  1. […] – I recently posted on Temple University Press’s blog about the origins of my book […]

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