Class size grows, but does it matter?

Class sizes are getting bigger, but does it really matter? “The relationship between class size and student outcomes is murky,” Hechinger’s Tamara Henry writes in USA Today

In the early 1990s, when many states were flush with cash, policymakers championed the findings of a 1985 experiment in Tennessee. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared academic achievement in small classes of 13 to 17 low-income students with that of students in classes that had 22 to 25 students. The experiment found modest but lasting gains for impoverished African-American students in the much smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade. States extrapolated from those findings to justify spending billions to make relatively modest cuts in class size in all schools, not just in those serving the poor.

California spent $20 billion to lower class size to 20 students in K-3. A follow-up study found no achievement gains, in part because districts had to hire poorly qualified teachers to lead extra classes.

The program was very popular, says Michael Kirst, an emeritus Stanford education professor.

“One lesson from California is that with parents, smaller class size is overwhelmingly favorable, and they don’t give a fig about the research that says this is not going to help their kids,” he says. “They intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention.”

Schools with easy-to-teach students were able to hire qualified teachers. Inner-city schools saw a significant decline in teacher quality.

In 2002, Florida voters to cut class size over time in all grades.

The state estimates that it will cost an additional $353 million this year, on top of the $16 billion the state has spent so far, to meet the requirements. In November, Florida voters will be asked to loosen those requirements to avoid massive spending cuts.

The Florida program had no effect on student achievement, according to a Harvard study released in May.

It’s more important to keep the best teachers than to keep classes small for all students, says Dan Goldhaber of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell. “The effects of class-size reduction are pretty marginal,” except in the early grades for disadvantaged students.

However, Kirst warns that California schools are facing “a very dangerous period. We are increasing class size to extremely high levels.

“I don’t worry about going from 20 to 25 students that much, or 15 to 20,” he says. “But when you go from 20 to 35 in a year or two, I don’t think we don’t know the effects of that.”

Years ago, I read research saying that most teachers teach in the same way — lecturing and asking questions — whether they have 35 students or 30 or 25 or even 20 in the class. Some said class size has to fall to 15 students to change the average teacher’s approach; others said classes with 10 to 12 students are needed. Today’s teachers, trained to be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage,” may have a harder time with the class sizes of yesteryear.

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  1. Well if you’re going to put postings like this how are we going to reach the twenty-teacher-per-student classroom?

  2. Actually, good teachers can use “guide on the side” methods with 35 students, when appropriate. They just can’t do it all day, every day. Nor should they.

  3. On another topic — yes, 12 or 15 children per classroom for low-income children, until they’re reading and doing math at a comfortable level, certainly makes sense.

  4. Cranberry says:

    Will Fitzhugh wrote a reflection on the “impossible working conditions” created by large class sizes.

    “After absorbing the fact of this shameful and irresponsible number of assigned students, I realized that if these teachers were to ask for the 20-page history research paper which is typical of the ones I publish in The Concord Review, they would have 3,600 pages to read, correct, and comment on when they were turned in, not to mention the extra hours guiding students through their research and writing efforts. The one teacher with 210 students would have 4,200 pages of papers presented to him at the end of term.”

  5. In my district most secondary sites are looking at classes sizes of 40 or more……often there is barely enough room in the rooms for all of the desks.

  6. Cranberry says:

    Do the local fire wardens know of this? A friend who’s a teacher reports the same phenomenon. From her description, it can be hard to move in the classroom.

  7. i think class sizes in the 20-30 range are fine, however, i find the when i have larger class sizes it is harder for me to give individual feedback to each student, every class period. the more students in the room, the less time i can spend with each child reviewing their work.

  8. I don’t cram desks in. The last kids in just pull up some floor.

  9. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    If disruptive disciplinary problems are handled in the principal’s office rather than in the classroom larger classes seem reasonable. Smaller classes = more teachers = more union dues = more Democrat funds.
    Eliminate compulsory union membership and a lot of other problems go away.

  10. Walter, no they don’t. Union membership is not compulsory in right-to-work states. Duh.