Many parents are dismayed to learn that their child will be one of 20 or more students in a classroom. Instinct tells us that fewer children per class makes for a more optimal learning experience. It’s simple math: a teacher’s attention divided by 20 students provides less individual attention than if it the same amount of attention is divided by 15 students. But do class size reduction programs work?
Class Size Reduction Programs
When researchers look at the effects of class size on student performance they study students whose class sizes have been reduced purposefully, not by just because enrollment is low. This purposeful restructuring of classrooms was financially supported by the federal government until 2002, when the funding was eliminated by the No Child Left Behind legislation.
Despite the lack of funding, some states have enacted class size mandates. The most notable of these mandates are those in Florida and California. In both states, the initiatives have been difficult to implement, in no small part due to budgetary restrictions and increasing enrollment.
Maintaining the class size reduction program without federal dollars is proving to be more expensive than anticipated and with more children entering schools, the cost of additional teachers and additional classroom space is not affordable.
Class Size Reduction and Quality Teaching
Interestingly, class size reduction mandates seem to have a two-wave effect on teaching quality, especially in highly populated districts. In California’s case, there was initially significant teacher attrition.
This tide of teacher turnover was attributed to the fact that reducing class size meant an increase in the number of teachers needed in each district. Many experienced urban (inner city) teachers jumped at the opportunity to apply for jobs in more suburban areas.
Anecdotally, California’s classrooms also saw a decrease in highly-qualified teachers, mostly in urban areas. Not only did many teachers need to be replaced, but teachers needed to be hired for new classrooms as well. It has been speculated that hiring so many teachers meant that the standards weren’t as high and new teachers were not as highly qualified.
However, once classroom size was reduced, there was a noted improvement in teacher turnover. At least one study found that teachers were more likely to stay longer when the number of students for whom they were responsible decreased.
Does Reducing Class Size Work?
The answer to whether or not class size reduction works is a little bit like President Bill Clinton’s quote “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” In this case, it depends on what the meaning of the word “works” is.
If the meaning of the word “works” is “students show tremendous, immediate gains in learning,” then the answer is no. The largest study on teacher ratio and student achievement, Tennessee's Project STAR, found that students who began kindergarten in a class with lower student to teacher ratio were about a month ahead of students in larger classes. This trend continued each year the students remained in a small class. In terms of immediate and significant learning gains, this margin is relatively small, though over the years, the cumulative effect is significant.
Another study of the effects of class size reduction in California indicated that reducing a class by 10 students increased the percentage of third-graders who achieved about the national median on standardized tests of mathematics and reading. The percentage changes were, respectively, an increase of 3 and 4 percent. Because all schools reduced class size, unlike the STAR data, this study couldn’t make a comparison between large and small classes.
If the meaning of the word “works” is “students show continued success throughout their educational careers,” the answer to the question is yes. In fact, two different studies (one by Finn & Gerber and one by Chetty, et al) indicate that students who were in smaller classes in the early elementary grades are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, become homeowners and have 401(k) accounts.
Class size reduction programs can work to improve student achievement, but the short-term effects are not as clearly visible as the long-term effects.
If you’re looking to see immediate jumps in your child’s academic achievement from being in a smaller class, you may be disappointed. Patience, however, can pay off. After three years of being in smaller classes, students are typically about six months ahead of their peers. That’s a gain worth waiting for!