When is small beautiful?

A British study found children in small primary classes did no better in English and math. In Year 6 (sixth grade?), reading scores were higher for students in larger classes. London University researchers followed “thousands of pupils in their fourth, fifth and sixth years of schooling.”

However, a long-term follow-up of a Tennessee study of small class size found significant benefits for children who spent three or four years in classes of 13 to 17 students.

It’s believed the greatest benefit of small classes comes in kindergarten and first grade. Perhaps the English students started small classes too late.

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  1. esunola says:

    My recollections are that the follow up research was jointly funded by the NEA and the AFT, not exactly disinterested observers in the outcome of the research. Even a quick overview of the 1997-1999 work on STAR indicates that their were few areas where differences in outcome were statistically significant. This was, in no small part, due to the fact that so many of the students in the original studies were not included in the follow on work.

    In that work, they estimate that the higher drop-out rate for larger class students represents a immediate negative economic impact of approximately $2 million, with additional potential costs being demands on welfare and social services. But they conveniently fail to mention that wholesale implementation of small class sizes would create capital demands that would run between $600-800 million, and recurring costs for salaries/benefits that could easily exceed $200 million.

    Dr. Finn overstates the evidence when he says this proves that 4 years of small class sizes are necessary. The original STAR effort established that the first two years was where gains could be made, and there is nothing in the follow on research that clearly establishes anything beyond that.

  2. My own experience tells me that smaller classes are more personal, with better student-teacher interactions, supervision, and discipline. So the NEA is right, just this once. It also matters if the teacher of a small class can take advantage of the opportunities available.

  3. Maybe smaller *classes* matter more in the earlier years, and smaller *schools* in the later ones.

  4. esunola says:

    Beeman –

    I would encourage you to read the STAR Summary Report, as well as some of the more recent work by Dr. Eric Hanushek or Dr. Caroline Hoxby. In the summary report they state that the gains in small classes were largest at the end of Grade 1 (about 15%, primarily in lower SES schools), then diminished after that. In fact after Grade 1, the larger class sizes performed as well as or better than the small classes. The small class effect persists all the way into high school, but there is no evidence that supports small class size after the first grade matters a bit with regard to student performance. Unfortunately, the NEA is advocating small class sizes for all grades, which would bankrupt the public education system with no reason to believe it would substantially effect student performance. Dr. Hanushek’s work demonstrates, over and over, that the single biggest factor that will impact student performance is the quality of the teaching.

  5. esunola:

    I agree that the NEA has its own agenda re. small class sizes, and it boils down to less work for all teachers. And it takes a better teacher to manage a larger class. But if public educators want to save money, they can first eliminate the compulsory aspects of education. That will release thousands of unmotivated students, make the schools cleaner and safer, and eliminate the waste of having to educate deadbeats.

    Then would be the time to find the ideal class size for the average student at various grade levels. Even then, some would work better with smaller (or larger) classes, and should have the option of choice.

    Perhaps “photoncourier” has a point, with smaller schools mattering more in the later years. And I will add, more personal ones.