Does Class Size Matter?
Imagine you've invited your second-grader's class to your home for a birthday party conducted by you and only you. Naturally, you want each child to socialize happily and have a great time. Everyone will participate in the games and activities you've planned so carefully -- even the most timid of the bunch. As for those boisterous and unruly kids, well, you're an experienced adult, right? By the way, just how many kids are we talking about?
Class size is back in the news. Prompted by the burgeoning number of American school-age children, a scarcity of facilities, and a growing body of research, legislation to reduce class size is on the agenda in several states. The pressure is particularly intense in places like California and Utah, where school populations are exploding, classrooms are jammed, and test scores are among the most dismal in the country. "My son's honors English class has 34 kids in it," says one mother. "The teacher was very defensive when I asked about it. He said they were good kids and it's not a problem." Most legislation seeks to decrease class size in the earliest grades -- from over 20 to around 15 children. Skeptics say that small classes only make a difference in kindergarten -- not in later grades.
A defining study
Does class size make a difference in the primary grades and beyond? Until Tennessee State University's Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), no research had attempted to statistically validate this proposition. Frederick Mosteller, a highly regarded statistician at Harvard, has recently revived the STAR research, calling it "one of the greatest experiments in education in the United States." Eleven states have cited Project STAR in legislation to reduce or cap class size in the early grades.
What does the research show?
Conducted over a five-year period, Project Star showed that for grades K-3, students in smaller classes had statistically significant advantages over students in regular classes.
A second study by the same team revealed that the positive effects from small classes in K-3 remained pervasive two full years after students returned to regular-size classes.
Project Challenge put the results of Project Star into practice by reducing classes in 17 Tennessee districts to approximately 15 students. Data shows students improving significantly in both math and reading.
What's the downside?
It's hard to get around the costs: if you decrease a regular class of 25 kids down to 14, then your school of small classes would require five teachers for every three needed before. If you figure the national average teacher salary at about $35,000, then a school of small classes would require about $1,000 more per pupil per year. Recently in New York City, parents at a Greenwich Village public school were so appalled at the prospect of larger classes due to a teacher layoff that they raised the money to fund the teacher's salary themselves.
On the savings side, research shows that small classes promote higher test scores, so fewer children are referred to costly remedial classes. "If we can wipe out non-readers by third grade," says one San Diego teacher, "We'll see fewer special education referrals."
"Don't forget that plenty of private schools have classes of just eight kids," says author and educator Deborah Meier. In New York City, she has demonstrated how breaking down large, inner-city schools into small neighborhoods or "houses" results in civility, creativity -- and academic success. At the request of the Boston Public Schools, her "small is better" philosophy is currently being recreated at the Mission Hill Pilot School.
What do parents think?
It's hard to find parents who don't support the idea of smaller classes. It's the main concern cited by those who send their children to private schools. "Even the simple act of creating more physical space around individual desks reduces distractions and discipline problems," says one father. Students are more likely to participate in activities, fewer children repeat a grade, and dropout rates are lower. Meanwhile, the surge in the student population continues.
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