Does Class Size Matter?

The recent presidential election brought the question of class size back before the public.  Governor Romney suggested that the number of students in a class has little or no impact on the academic results of the class.  President Obama did not go that far, nor did he refute Governor Romney’s assertion, though the President did argue for a greater number of teachers, which would, in a perfect world, decrease the number of students per class.

It is this issue that once again causes gremlins to start roaring in my stomach.  Most of us have listened to boards of education and administrators quoting research that explains why not hiring more staff, as well as cuts in staff – thus increasing class numbers – have limited impact on classroom quality.  We hear college level data that “proves” that a good teacher can have the same results in a class of 30-40 as in a class of 20; that all we need to do is use more technology in the classroom and learning will increase, regardless of the number of students.

Nonsense!  The few stated studies that “prove” class size does not matter are often based on conditions which are alien to the typical public school, such as classes of highly skilled and motivated students with no special needs students nor students who require special attention.  Another study compared the results of a highly trained and experienced teacher with a class of 25 students to a first year teacher with an 18 student class.  The results were based on a test used for several years by the experienced teacher.  It is not surprising that the experienced teacher did as well as the new teacher with a smaller class size.

My first thought is about my high school class of 20 with high skill levels and motivation which was scheduled to discuss the results of a chemical experiment done the previous day.  The class would be tested the next day on the learning of facts and concepts and those results compared to a class of 25 equally talented students.  The one constant was that I taught both classes. The larger class (25) was 1st hour, following a 15 minute homeroom which allowed time for study.  The smaller class was the first class after lunch.  On the day of review an unexpected fire alarm drill started 10 minutes into the class after lunch.  The next day the scores of the smaller class were lower than the test results of the larger class..
Given the results, one could argue that the number of students in the two classes was not relevant nor important since the larger class scored better.  I am sure that all readers see the flaw in such a conclusion, especially anyone who has taught at the high school level and understands that the incidents of the day have a major effect on the learning of the class.

An article by Laurene Johnson in the October 2011 District Administrator Magazine offers thoughtful information.  She writes in part “…Although the effects of class size have been debated for decades, Tennessee’s STAR project in the late 1980s seemed to settle the argument.  However, while the STAR project found significant improvements in student learning when class size was reduced for kindergarten through third grade (Word et al., 1990), the body of research on class size suggests a more complex picture of the relationship between class size and student achievement.”  However, given the many and varied tasks that teachers and ESPs are given, the impact of larger number of students becomes magnified and more problematic.

Many staff evaluations include measurements of how often the staff interacts one-on-one with each student each day.  Another common question is does the staff give quality time to the lower achieving student – why or why not?  It is clear that with increasing education challenges directed at staff members that student numbers do matter, maybe more so in the early grades but also in the higher grades.  Have you ever tried to teach 30 middle school students math concepts on the day before the “big game?”

The national ratio of students to teachers in public schools fell between 1980 and 2008 from 17.6 to 15.8 students per teacher.  That statistics counts special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular classroom teachers do and usually is not a measure of the actual PTR (pupil/teacher ratio).  The Department of Education estimated the real number is closer to 25 students per class.  Following the start of an economic downturn in 2008, 19 states relaxed or eliminated their class-size laws or policies, usually as a cost-saving measure.  Districts often attempt to defend reductions in staff, resulting in larger classes, with creative explanations, frequently using questionable studies. One report suggested that hiring more staff to lower class numbers may result in needing to hire more unprepared and less talented teachers and should be avoided, regardless of the impact on class size.  This may be the most creative argument yet against investing in our schools.

Our Alaska legislature will again hear the specious explanations of why it is not necessary to increase the funding of public education.  They will be told that Districts have plenty of resources to run the schools and if one or more students is added to a classroom that really has no negative impact.  You can help diffuse those arguments by sending your personal views and experiences regarding class numbers and how your classes were affected.  We will collect your information and send it to key legislators with the hope that real life staff experiences will convince the Governor and others to increase public education funding.  Please forward your thoughts to

Don Oberg

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