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New Developments in the Class Size Debate
posted by: Alix | November 30, 2010, 04:21 PM   

A few years ago, class size seemed to be one of the most talked about classroom policies. Smaller class sizes would lessen the load on an educator and give students a more individualized classroom experience, right? Well, just as fast as class sizes went down, they are now creeping back up and gaining attention in certain states struggling with budget shortfalls.

The debate over class size grows as some argue over the impact it has on students in the classroom. "It really has a lot to do with how people teach. Experience and teaching style really make the difference. If you teach in a lecture style, classroom size is probably not going to make a difference. But studies show that classroom reduction really makes sense in kindergarten through grade three," said Patrick Westcott, associate professor of teacher education at Rowan University.

Certainly raising class sizes walks a fine line between reducing costs and negatively affecting students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national ratio of students to their teachers fell between 1980 and 2008, from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher. This statistic accounts for special needs classrooms where class sizes are traditionally smaller. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the current average class size is closer to 25 students.

Nearly all the states that have changed their class-size policies since 2008 have eased restrictions, in many cases specifically to ease districts' budget burdens, according to the Education Commission of the States. In Florida for example, voters had a chance to ease the class-size limits that voters approved in 2002 with a ballot imitative. It did not receive the votes needed to pass an amendment and class sizes are required to stay under 25 students despite heavy budget constraints.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says we have to do "more with less."

"I anticipate that a number of districts may be asked next year to weigh targeted class-size increases against the loss of music, arts, and after-school programming," Duncan said. "It's difficult to talk about class size... but we owe it to the country's children to have those conversations...We support shifting away from class-size-based reduction that is not evidence-based."

The hard evidence for smaller class size is mixed and shows a higher impact for younger, minority and low-income students. Among the best-known is the Tennessee Department of Education's Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project, a four-year study during the 1990s that tracked more than 7,000 students in 79 schools. The STAR program ultimately found that in classes with 17 or less pupils in kindergarten though grade three are more likely to graduate and attend college.

Replicating the success in other states like Florida and California proved difficult and as a result class size reduction gained critics in some policy makers and researchers. Opponents argue most class-size-reduction plans are too general, and improvements aren't significant enough to balance the astronomical costs of keeping class sizes down. In Florida, the policy that was kept in place by November's vote will ultimately cost the state $40 billion over the next ten years.

The debate over class size is likely to gain steam as administrators struggle with limited budgets in the years to come.

As an educator, do you feel that class size makes a significant difference in your classroom?
Comment below.

Comments (2)Add Comment
Computer Lab Teacher
written by Sandra Long, January 20, 2011

It is important to give students individualized attention as frequently as possible. I have one small class and can get to each student each day and have personal contact--that is for a math lab. My other classes are 32 in size and some days I don't make that personal contact. If an elem. teacher has students all day it is possible to make contaxct during the day for specific needs perhaps, but in a middle school with 45 minute periods--they can just slip away. It is definitely not what's best for kids to have big classes. On a college level and lecture environment--whatever amount doesn't matter. In lower grades where teachers need to make direct contact--it does. Also--we just don't lecture any more--at least not in middle school. Why would it be different that K-3. If high schools are wondering why so many kids are unprepared--because that is what I hear--possibly we need to look at class size higher than grade 3. I am a firm believer in smaller classes and eliminating totally the 6-8 numbers in some classes for whatever reason that skew the average class size for the multitudes. Ouor Idaho superintendent of Public Instruction is talking about increasing class size from 19--what??? I have never seen a class that size! That is except for the one math lab I was assigned this year--which I should have not had--those 6-10 kids should have been combined with another math lab. I believe a max. of 22 is optimum.
French teacher
written by Harlan Locke, Overland Park, KS, December 18, 2010

Class size makes a difference. I can not monitor language skills development in a class of 30 students. I can not spend as much time helping the marginal student. There will be more marginal students as there will be fewer options available. They will be forced into classes they neither want nor like. The only way to help the marginal student is to provide small group or individual instruction after school. Teachers are finding they have to do more and more of this as class sizes go up. This is time they already don't have, especially in light of all the new electronic paper trail documentation being required of teachers.

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