Class Size Crunch
What's more vital to classroom success, a great teacher or lower class size?
Like many teachers, Katie Parks Bailey often reflects on her day during her drive home. She's worked in three states, with different grade levels and varying class sizes. Bailey says, not surprisingly, she knows she did a better job managing her class, covering curriculum, and interacting with parents when she had fewer than 20 students in a class versus the year she had 35.
"When the classes were smaller, I felt more effective more often," says the 34-year-old teacher from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. With just 14 in her kindergarten class, Bailey says she could give the children the individual attention they needed.
Later, in larger classes, Bailey faced discipline problems and spent time breaking up fights. "When you don't feel effective, it clouds everything else," she says. On her evening commute, she was overwhelmed with worries about managing her class and had less energy left to put toward better teaching ideas.
It's hard to find an educator or parent who is not a fan of smaller classes. But the reality for principals and superintendents is that resources are limited. They have to weigh class size along with other approaches to help student achievement, such as beefing up teacher training or enhancing technology. And with the dismal economy, many states are facing larger class sizes rather than considering smaller ones. How does an administrator decide what's right for his or her district?
There is no one answer when it comes to improving education. But unlike teacher quality and parental involvement, which are hard to gauge, reducing class size is a concrete approach that works, says Charles Achilles, a leading researcher on class size and professor of leadership, management, and policy in the College of Education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
"There should be no question about the value of it and no controversy that it works for as long as it's been around," says Achilles. However, districts don't always invest enough to see the true impact. It takes three to four years of small class experiences, starting in PreK or kindergarten with 15-17 students, for students to reap the benefits of extra teacher time, he says. It's a mistake to put students in small classes just for one year before they have a high-stakes test and expect to see positive results, he adds.
It's Not Student-Teacher Ratio
It's also important to distinguish between class size stats and student-teacher ratio numbers, notes Achilles. When a school calculates a student-teacher ratio, it is based on the total number of school instructional staff divided by the total enrollment of students. This includes all specialists, such as the librarian and the art and physical education teachers. Classes can be large, even crowded, in schools that have low student-teacher ratios overall.
Class size refers to the number of students in a classroom daily with a teacher. "The number of students in the room shapes all that happens, including teaching, the amount of attention given to each student, learning, and student behavior," says Jeremy Finn, professor of education at the State University of New York at the University of Buffalo.
"The research is very extensive and there is consensus that smaller classes in the early grades, K-3, has an academic benefit in every subject and has a lasting benefit," says Finn. Research shows that students who experienced small class sizes early on are more likely to perform better throughout their academic career, have higher graduation rates, and are more likely to take college entrance exams, he says.
While there isn't an absolute number, 20 is a threshold, says Finn. Districts, especially when serving students at risk, should shoot for keeping younger classes under 20 for the best results. Indeed, the addition of each child to a class changes the dynamic of the class and influences the outcome, notes Achilles.
The reality is that class sizes are going up in many districts because of the economy. So, if choices have to be made, the priority should be to keep class sizes small in grades K-3 and those serving the most at-risk students, says Finn.
The most extensive experiment that revealed the benefits of small class size is Project STAR, conducted in Tennessee in the late 1980s. It found that children randomly assigned to smaller classes (13-17 students) in grades K-3 scored significantly higher on achievement tests than those in regular classes of 22 to 25 or those in a regular-size class with a teacher's aide.
The four-year study was the brainchild of Helen Bain, a teacher, researcher, and former president of the National Education Association, who convinced the Tennessee state legislature to invest $12 million in the four-year project. As a seventh-grade teacher, Bain knew firsthand how much more students could learn in a smaller class and she was determined to prove it. "If you give me 50 kids, forget it, even 35, you can't do a thorough job," says Bain, cofounder of HEROS, Inc., an organization that conducts class size research and is the official holder of the STAR data. "I believe you can do it with 20."
Florida on the Forefront
Currently, about half the states have class-reduction programs for public schools. Florida passed a constitutional amendment in 2002 that phased in lower class sizes to 18 in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school. This fall, districts had to meet the cap or face fines.
Bain believes Florida has the right approach. "If I could wave my magic wand, I'd do it in every state," she says.
Not everyone shares Bain's enthusiasm for the mandate. "Some of that $16 billion should have been spent improving curriculum and making our schools more rigorous. Instead, $16 billion was drained away to hire more teachers," says Florida state senator Don Gaetz, who contends there is little evidence that class size is a significant determinant of student performance. "The most important factor is an effective teacher."
Bruce Tonjes, associate superintendent in Polk County Public School District, says putting up 1,000 portable classrooms and adding staff has meant a lot of moving around. "It's been quite disruptive. It's a constant battle to have enough teachers available. It's a nice idea, but it's not manageable."
An examination of Florida's statewide mandate by Matthew Chingos of Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance found insignificant improvement in student performance in grades 3-8 with lower class size. "The study isn't saying you should never, ever reduce class size. But it is saying Florida's policy, which cost billions of dollars, doesn't seem to have made much of a difference in student achievement in that state," says Chingos. "The one-size-fits-all mentality is very rarely a good idea."
Finn criticizes Chingos's study for focusing on grades where the likelihood of finding class size effects is smaller, and says that it overlooks the long-term potential impact of smaller classes in K-2. He also says the differences in class sizes of the two comparison groups in the study—those treated and untreated—are too small to make a difference educationally.
To loosen the class size requirement, Senator Gaetz sponsored an amendment on the ballot this fall that would raise the cap for individual classes and let schools meet the limits on an average basis. "It's a commonsense way to provide some limited local flexibility and avoid the chaos," says Gaetz.
Responding to the Economy
Georgia passed legislation mandating class size maximums ranging from 18 to 28, varying by grade and subject, beginning in 2006-2007. But in response to the economic downturn, the state board of education in May scrapped the limits on class size (with the consent of the legislature) for this school year.
While not ideal, the move was in recognition of the budget crunch that schools were facing, says Susan Walker, policy and research director at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit that works with businesses to follow education issues.
"The intent was to give the school systems more flexibility so their hands would not be tied as they tried to do more with less," says Walker. Although there was an initial outcry, class sizes haven't skyrocketed, as some feared. Walker says the hope is that relaxing the class size maximums is only a temporary measure.
In 2001, a tax referendum to increase funding for schools in Mobile County Public Schools in Mobile, Alabama, provided money to reduce class size. At first, the early elementary classes were held to 16 students and the fourth and fifth grades to 20-22. Then, the concept was rolled out to the middle and high schools, trying to cap classes at 24.
Now, Mobile is one of the higher-performing systems in the state, says Superintendent Roy Nichols. Along with class size reduction, teachers were also required to focus on student data and collaborate on how to best meet their academic needs. "People get hung up on the argument of class size or teacher expertise," says Nichols. "I don't think it's an either-or. We need to look at both."
Since 2008, economic problems in the area have translated into two to three more students per class in Mobile, and Nichols says he's hearing "moaning and groaning" from teachers who don't like the change and feel smaller class sizes are essential for increasing student achievement.
"Class size is a no-brainer. Most parents, teachers, and school board members realize class size makes a tremendous difference. It's an easy argument to make," he says. "It's harder to make with politicians who are not closely aligned with education. In their mind, it sounds expensive."
Making the Case
To get lawmakers to support public education, Nichols says superintendents need to show that it's an "economic development" and "quality of life" issue.
Administrators need to get across the value of small class size to school board members by getting to know them one at a time. Then, they must stay on message. "You have to be like a dog with a bone," says HEROS's Bain. "If you want something done, you just have to stick with it."
And superintendents need to make a distinction between a push for small class size rather than a low student-teacher ratio, says Seton Hall's Achilles. "They've got to be clear when a school board says, ‘You have plenty of people'—you might have people, but you might not have them in the right place," he says.
Achilles encourages administrators to emphasize the long-term benefits of small class sizes. "It will save them money in the long run because there will be fewer students retained and in special education," he says. "Drop-out rates will be lower and the kids will stay in school. On the whole, it works out."
Finn acknowledges it's an uphill battle. "I would try to fight the impulse to increase K-3, especially in inner-city and rural schools, and fight like crazy," says Finn. "But I'm afraid the economy is a much larger influence."