The Class Size Battlefield: How Much Does It Matter?

One of the oldest debates among educators, researchers and politicians is the importance of class size. Although a smaller student-to-teacher ratio in a classroom may make the job of teaching easier, does it really result in improved learning for the students? In a time where educational funding is scarce in so many states, is the expense of additional teaching staff really justified based on high-stakes testing scores?

As with any topic in education, there are many different angles to examine in order to gain understanding.

Project STAR

For many years, the arguments over the importance of class size had been theoretical rather than scholarly. A solid research study that truly measured the value of class size had not been conducted until Tennessee’s Project STAR in 1985. This four-year study involved over 1,200 teachers and approximately 12,000 students. The experimental design of Project STAR is what made it such a valuable resource when understanding the impact of class size.

Among the key findings from Project STAR:

  • Smaller class sizes in the early grades (kindergarten through third grade) can boost student achievement.
  • In order to produce the best results, class size should not exceed 18 in any grade level.
  • Minority and low-income students showed the highest gains when placed in small primary grade classrooms.
  • Experience and preparation of teachers are crucial factors to success regardless of class size.
  • Professional development is key to enhancing the effects of smaller class size on student achievement.

Class size doesn’t matter

On the other end of the spectrum, a more recent study issued in 2011 from Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, two Harvard researchers, removes importance from class size.

According to their study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, while analyzing 35 charter schools they determined that factors such as class size, per pupil expenditure, teacher certification, and educators with advanced degrees had no correlation with school effectiveness. Their findings place greater emphasis on data-driven instruction, increases in tutoring and instructional time, and high expectations for all involved.

All else being equal

The more educational researchers study class size, the clearer it becomes that the number of students in a classroom does impact the learning of everyone in the room.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, associate professor at Northwestern University, summed up her research on class size by simply stating, “All else being equal, increasing class size will harm student outcomes.” Most any classroom teacher could verify this statement simply based on real-world experience.

So where does the disconnect lie? Perhaps the biggest setback for increasing educational funding to allow for smaller class sizes comes from time versus results.

Why there’s not enough time

In order to truly see the benefits from smaller class size, at the minimum you would need the length of time it takes for a child to complete their elementary and secondary school experience. This would seem to make the most sense, but the American public wants immediate results from their tax dollars. If lowering class sizes do not “fix” schools within three years, complaints begin to arise and an elected official may feel the pressure to provide results.

Essentially, the biggest roadblock to this style of school reform is the population that it would indirectly benefit.

Rather than look at the conflicting research and feeling obligated to choose a side, it would be a better use of time to search for common threads that exist in both areas.

Maximizing professional training while striving for class size reduction would incorporate suggestions from both viewpoints. Even with lower class sizes, education will not improve without formal training that helps teachers integrate interventions and data-driven instruction into their classroom routines.

It doesn’t take a researcher to realize that fewer students in a classroom means more opportunity for learning, but only if the teacher makes the most of the opportunity.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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