December 2020 Advocate: Smaller class sizes needed to develop social justice pedagogy


Smaller class sizes are essential to effectively develop anti-racist, anti-oppression pedagogy

By Doniella Maher, AFT 1493 Cañada Chapter Co-Chair

In September, the newly formed AFT Anti-Oppression Committee determined to focus on the relationship between class size and equity and how large class sizes particularly impact our most marginalized students.  Our first campaign was to develop a resolution to support and build a meaningful district-wide conversation about equity and a process to reduce large class size limits that inhibit student-centered teaching. As part of this campaign, we have engaged in many important discussions across the campuses. Equity committees at all three schools have discussed the resolution, raising thought-provoking ideas and questions.  The Executive Committee of AFT and the District Academic Senate have also contributed to and voted to support the resolution.  To bring our ideas to the Board of Trustees, two members, Doniella Maher and Rika Yonemura-Fabian, presented a rationale and explanation of the resolution in conjunction with students presenting student survey results and personal stories at the November 18th Board Meeting.

Resolution on class size reduction and student-centered teaching presented to SMCCD Board

The following is from our presentation to the Trustees:

We are here today to represent the AFT Anti-Oppression Committee. The committee was initially formed at the AFT-organized teach-in held in September, “Social Justice Unionism in Practice: From Part-Time Pay Parity to Anti-Oppression Organizing.” As a team of rank-and-file members, students, and AFT officers, we collaborate on activities that social justice unionism requires, going beyond the standard wage and benefits issues. The committee is charged with building solidarity through active education and conversation on, and actions against, anti-blackness, misogyny, ableism, cis- and heteronormativity, and other systems of oppression that our faculty and students face. At one of our first meetings, the Anti-Oppression committee determined that connecting student equity goals with class size was something that we all had passion to pursue.

As the delegates of the anti-oppression committee, we are here today to present the resolution on small class size as an important social justice measure the District can implement that would have a significant social justice impact on our students.  

We don’t have to start at the beginning. Over the last 10 years, faculty across disciplines within the SMCCD have developed and led professional development activities identifying the beneficial effects of student-centered pedagogical practices and the need to implement them even more broadly into our teaching.  These include, but are not limited to, the development of cohort learning communities such as Umoja and Writing in the End Zone at CSM and Puente at Cañada, training faculty to develop student-centered practices through professional development like the “Transforming STEM Teaching Faculty Learning Program”, and connecting faculty, tutors, peer mentors, and counselors to approach teaching holistically. These are incredible programs, and we should build off them to develop coherent anti-racist pedagogy for our students. 

All of these interventions require faculty engagement with their students in a way that is completely different from the banking model of education that dominated the second half of the 20th century.  We recognize that, among many other factors that impact student success and learning outcomes, it is exactly the large lecture format that disproportionately impacts the most marginalized.

Class size and teaching methods are almost inextricably intertwined.  Large class size increases the faculty’s reliance on lecture as the primary method of instruction and decreases the active involvement of students with course materials and their peers. Research shows that in 4-year colleges, students are most dissatisfied about large introductory courses precisely because they lack instructor-student or student-to-student interaction and the opportunities for questions and discussions are limited. If we really want to pursue anti-racist, anti-oppression pedagogy as an institution, class size is one factor we must consider as an essential element for student success.

Our asks

Currently, class size is determined by convention, room availability, and the decision has been typically left to individual administrators. For example, social sciences classes have a cap of 45 at Skyline College, but there is no assessment about why 45 is the optimum size for the success of students of color, low-income students, and other students that come from a place of structural marginalization. Worse, it is a common practice to increase the cap of popular online or in-person classes to 75 and above.  

As the Anti-oppression Committee of AFT, supported by the District Academic Senate, College of San Mateo’s Educational Equity Committee and the Executive Committee of AFT, we have resolved to ask the Board of Trustees the following:

We ask the Board of Trustees to support a 25% reduction in class size for all courses during the pandemic, regardless of the modality of instruction. 

We ask the Board of Trustees to commit to delineating and implementing a future process involving participatory governance bodies to lower class size based on social justice and equity principles in future semesters, and 

We ask San Mateo Community College District to make a concerted, systematic effort in implementing lower class sizes, not leave these decisions to individual administrator purview.

The Anti-Oppression Committee will continue to meet with faculty across the colleges to fight for a process that prioritizes student engagement and anti-racist pedagogy in decisions about class size. For more information or to join the Anti-Oppression Committee, please contact Doniella Maher (, Michael Hoffman ( or Rika Yonemura-Fabian (