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Does The Size of Your Child's Class Matter?

A multi-ethnic group of school children are indoors in a classroom. They are wearing casual clothing. They are sitting on the floor and eagerly listening to their teacher read a storybook.

The fact that students frequently get more attention in smaller classes is a significant advantage.(GETTY IMAGES)

Smaller class sizes have long been argued to improve student performance.

Smaller classrooms allow for more individualized attention for each student, according to proponents, which improves test scores, grades, and behavior issues. These proponents include many parents and teachers. However, those opposed to initiatives to reduce class sizes claim that doing so simply diverts money from other needs without significantly enhancing students' academic performance.

No one will contest the validity of the case for smaller class sizes, asserts Douglas Ready, a professor of public policy and education at Columbia University in New York. “It sounds great. Teachers want it. Parents desire it. Everyone desires it. Finding teachers who can teach it and paying for it are the problems.

Benefits and Challenges of Smaller Classes

According to Ready, there have been sizable, randomized control trials that examined the effects of class-size reduction. These trials are typically regarded as the gold standard in study design. These studies found a correlation between smaller class sizes and improved test scores.

In 1985, the Tennessee experiment known as the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project got underway. It assigned 7,000 kindergarteners to 79 schools and different-sized classrooms.

After four years, the students who had been placed in small courses were between two and five months ahead of their counterparts in larger classes, according to a report on the study that was published in the academic journal Teachers College Record. Even after the trial was over and the students were returned to their regular classroom settings, the smaller group students continued to benefit from this arrangement. By the seventh grade, they had almost an entire academic year on their peers.

Then, in 1996, Wisconsin conducted a related study with a focus on schools serving low-income students, comparing adolescents in classes of 12 to 15 students with those in classes of 21 to 25 students. Once more, a federal review of the study found that test scores were higher for students in smaller classes.

Smaller class sizes improve student outcomes in all ways that can be measured, according to the research, according to Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit organization Class Size Matters, which advocates for smaller class sizes.

The results of more recent research, which used a variety of methodologies, have, however, been contradictory.

For starters, smaller class sizes necessitate the hiring of more teachers, which Ready says has long been a problem for districts.

According to a study of class size reduction in New York City public schools from 2009 to 2013, many of the gains in test scores were offset by declines brought on by the "new teacher effect." The article claims that decreasing class sizes can "significantly boost student achievement," but only if schools can do so without compromising the quality of their teachers.

In order to reduce class sizes, California began a program in 1996 that gave districts $650 for each student in kindergarten through third-grade classes with 20 or fewer students. Districts quickly hired about 30,000 new teachers, but the program cost the state billions of dollars.

According to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of those educators were inexperienced and uncertified teachers. The problem was particularly serious for Black students in schools with a high proportion of low-income students, where nearly 25% of students had a teacher with two years or less of experience and 30% had a teacher who was not fully credentialed. In schools with fewer students from low-income families, only 12% of white students had a teacher with two years or less of experience, and only 5% had a teacher with insufficient credentials.

A Princeton University researcher has reviewed studies on the class size reduction initiative and found that it "had a positive and significant influence on student achievement." More than any other racial or ethnic group, black students "seem to have benefited" from class size reduction, according to research.

Alternatives to Reducing Class Size

Some education experts contend that raising teacher wages would be a better use of the millions of dollars needed to fund widespread attempts to reduce class sizes, “thus increasing the size (and arguably the quality) of the teacher labor pool,” Ready wrote in a report.

Even while experts dispute reports of a statewide teacher shortage, many school districts have had trouble filling positions because of the pandemic. Federal data show that in January 2022, 44% of public schools reported having at least one vacancy, and 61% attributed the rise in teacher and staff vacancies to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the years, fewer individuals have chosen to pursue careers as teachers. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, there were more than 200,000 undergraduate education degrees given each year in the 1970s, but less than 90,000 were awarded in 2018.

“We are in a moment of extreme teacher shortage, and it’s likely to get worse,” According to Bryan Hassel, co-president of the education advocacy organization Public Impact. “The idea that we would say now in that environment, ‘You need to find and keep another 25, 30, 40% more teachers,’ is a recipe for disaster because who’s going to fill those slots?”

Instead, states and school districts should try to increase their capacity for small-group tutoring by hiring paraprofessionals, such as teaching assistants, Hassel argues.

“There is strong evidence that having small groups learn from a teacher or a paraprofessional in a tutoring setting is very effective,” Hassel says. “Schools really should be trying to increase the amount of that that goes on, but that can happen in a larger class. You can have 25 kids in a room. Some are working intensively in a tutoring environment with the teacher; the others are doing projects, doing other work.”

What Parents Can Do

Haimson advises parents to talk to political authorities, school board members, and principals about studies showing the advantages of smaller classes.

“Whether you're talking about academic achievement or social, emotional recovery from the pandemic, the best way to ensure that happens for all kids is to be able to offer them small classes,” she says. “We hope that parents will act as their children's advocates and push for that at the local level.”

In the meantime, Ready advises parents to concentrate on teacher quality.

“If a district can afford to have smaller class sizes and maintain teacher quality, great," he says. "But in most parts of the U.S., there are trade-offs."

Ask the instructor or other school personnel if you have questions about your child being in a large class "what plans they have to ensure that kids are getting individual attention even though the class is large, such as small-group work within the large class" or having more paraprofessionals, Hassel says.

"The value of small classes likely comes from the extra attention students get," he notes, "and so there are other ways to get students that attention if you're stuck with a large class."