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Class Size


Q. Aren't small class sizes better? It seems fairly obvious that the fewer the kids in the classroom, the less chance you can "hide" or "check out" of learning. You're just too conspicuous! But economically, it is very difficult to expect schools to have small class sizes. What's the answer to this quandary?


There's a growing consensus that the huge investment necessary to reduce class sizes pays the best return on student achievement if it is targeted. Who should it target? Those for whom a smaller class size has been shown to pay off: low-income pupils in kindergarten through third grade, for the most part.


Otherwise, it appears that class-size reductions are very costly and don't help kids do better. We already have proven that, in American schools. As researcher Doug Harris of the University of Wisconsin points out, the U.S. pupil-teacher ratio has dropped from 22.3 to 16.2 since 1970, reflecting an enormous amount of new teachers employed in schools and accompanying enormous additional costs, and yet standardized test scores are static or declining over that same time.


See these Fordham Foundation's Gadfly articles for more evidence (scroll down a bit):


Parents and teachers still cry out for smaller classes, perhaps because it's a simple and visible "fix" that they can understand and feel good about . . . even though it's probably not the smartest thing to do, if the goal is to improve student achievement.


Research suggests that, for most students, a smaller class size is helpful in preschool and the early grades of school. But that benefit gradually gives way to teacher quality in middle school and beyond as a correlate of student achievement. You can't have small class sizes AND teacher specialization AND diverse curricular choices, without bankrupting taxpayers.


According to leading education researchers such as Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, teacher quality is a far more important influence on student outcomes than is class size, anyway.


Hanushek's landmark research in the 1990s showed that paying the enormous amounts of money for additional teacher salaries and school space to reduce class sizes was basically wasted:


While limited-size studies such as Tennessee's STAR (the Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio study) did show that randomly-assigned K-3 pupils did do better in class sizes at around 16 vs. 24, there are so many other variables besides class size that play into student achievement that it would be unwise public policy to mimic the Tennessee study and invest millions or billions of tax dollars.


A few years ago, California did enact a huge class-size reduction policy that cost an enormous amount of money and wound up employing a lot of new teachers. Test scores did rise. But at the same time, many inexperienced teachers were hired to fill the newly-created slots, and many experienced teachers moved from inner-city schools to suburban schools to take the new jobs. That left inner-city classrooms staffed by the new, inexperienced hires. Also, California abolished separate bilingual education at the same time, and put in a better accountability system. So it's impossible to tell to what degree the class-size reductions paid off, or if the policy change in fact made the learning curve worse, not better.


But a smaller teacher-to-pupils ratio does make sense in the early grades. The principle is that if you can make the child self-sufficient by instilling good reading ability in the early grades, and pay good salaries to good teachers, then you can save money in the long run - after kids are reading well - by employing fewer teachers who are better at teaching.


By mid- to late grade school, the children are (or should be!) reading well and be more self-sufficient learners. That's why, for the most part, for middle school and high school students, a small class size isn't cost-effective or significantly beneficial.


It's true that private schools have smaller class sizes, and with homeschooling, the "staff-to-child ratio" couldn't be better . . . but on a large scale using tax dollars, it's hard to make an economic case for small class sizes from a cost-efficiency standpoint.


For struggling learners, though, the story is different. A recent report by researchers from the University of London Institute of Education indicates that low-achieving students in middle schools and high schools benefit significantly from a smaller class setting, both in terms of academic achievement and behavior management. The individual attention that a teacher can give in a smaller pupil group appears to be the key for at-risk learners.


A team led by researcher Peter Blatchford studied 686 students in 27 primary schools and 22 secondary schools in the United Kingdom. They recorded what was going on in 10-second intervals. They found that adding five students to a class decreased the odds of students being on task by nearly 25%. They concluded that struggling students were nearly twice as likely to be disengaged in classes of 30 students as they were in classes of 15.


Some class-size studies in the United States indicate that a "threshold" of 20 students per classroom is considered optimum, but the British researchers reported no "threshold effect" in their study.


It is important to note that a class-size reduction study on 7,000 students undertaken in Hong Kong indicated that fewer pupils per teacher did not have any measurable effect on student engagement. So an investment in smaller classes there would be a bad one. Hong Kong, like other Asian countries, has significantly larger class sizes than in the United States - and higher standardized test scores, as well as superior numbers in other quality measurements, such as dropouts. The difference appears to be the cultural norm in Asian families that school is tremendously important and students should behave and try their best at all times.


Lead researcher Maurice Galton of the University of Cambridge in Britain did the study in Hong Kong, and found that teachers' one-to-one interactions with students were just as frequent in classes of 20-to-25 students as they were in classes of 32-to-37 students. However, he found that teachers spent more time talking with individual students in smaller classes, and those students were more likely to ask for help outside of class. Teachers in larger classes also relied more on textbooks for all of their instruction, the study found.


Homework: Visit the website of Wisconsin's Student Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program, an initiative aimed at reducing the student-teacher ratio to 15-to-1 in kindergarten to 3rd grade classrooms serving economically disadvantaged students.


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 04 2008


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