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Class Size: Does it Really Matter?

When my husband was transferred across the country a few years ago, I was charged with determining where we would live.  Because his new job was within commuting distance of three different states, the task was not an easy one.  In order to narrow things down, I turned to School Matters, a site that provides information about public school’s reading and math scores as well as their student/teacher ratio.

While I obviously wanted a school where the test scores were high, I was just as determined to find one where the class sizes were small.  After all, a smaller class size means a better education, right?

Not necessarily.  According to research, the relationship between class size and student achievement is not as clear cut as you might think.

The idea that smaller is better seems have stemmed from an experiment in Tennessee schools in the mid 1990s.  There, modest but lasting gains in academic performance were realized in low-income, African-American students when they were taught in classrooms of  just 13 to 17 students during kindergarten and first grade.

This led other states to follow suit and hire more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. But in California and Florida, where statewide programs were instituted to ensure smaller class sizes, research has found that these programs had no effect on student achievement.   What’s more, in California, Standord University emeritus professor Michael Kirst says the push for smaller class sizes resulted in districts hiring “all sorts of teachers just off the street.”

Of course, all this hiring took place back in the good old days when money wasn’t so tight and schools could afford to expand staff.  These days, teachers are losing their jobs and class sizes are increasing as a result.  And, according to Kirst, parents don’t care what the research says, they still want smaller classrooms.

“One lesson from California is that with parents, smaller class size is overwhelmingly favorable, and they don’t give a fig about the research that says this is not going to help their kids.  They intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention.”

Yes, we do.  And I think the disconnect here lies in the definition of  “small.”  In Tennessee, those smaller classrooms consisted of 13 to 17 students.  In Florida and California, they were closer to 20.  And while research really may not find an appreciable difference in achievement in students in classes that go up from 25 to 30, those classes started out large and got larger.  I cannot be convinced that a child in a truly small class – say fifteen students – isn’t going to do better than a child in a class of 30.

Not that it matters what I think.  Due to budget cuts, my child’s school was recently forced to lay off some teachers.  Her class consisted of 23 students last year and I expect we will be closer to 30 this year.  How large is your child’s classroom?  Does class size concern you?

Image: Chicago 2016/Flickr

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