If you’re a good teacher, the number of students in your class shouldn’t be a factor – at least according to a growing chorus of self-styled education reformers. In a recent speech to the National Governor’s Association, Bill Gates said the nation could improve education – even in an era of extreme budget cuts – by lifting caps on class sizes, by identifying a school’s top teachers, asking them to take on more students, and then paying them more to do so.
But more than 30 years of research shows that smaller class sizes are better – including a study that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Smaller Class Sizes Improve Student Learning
According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Department of Education, class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement.
Another study, which included reviews of classrooms in the United States, Great Britain and Hong Kong, found that smaller classes can benefit all students in terms of individual, active attention from teachers, and that lower-achieving students in particular can benefit from smaller classes at the high school level.
And in California, the state with the largest class sizes, research proves smaller classes improve student learning among low-income students. According to a June 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, five of the state’s largest school districts reported significant test score gains since the state’s class size reduction program began in 1996. Third-grade test scores increased 14 percent in math and 9 percent in reading in schools with mostly low-income students.
The classroom reduction program is still on the books, but in the ongoing budget crunch, districts have been given the ability to increase class sizes, and they’ve been creeping up in recent years.
In the San Marcos Unified School District, for example, the class size program kept first and second grade classes to 20 students until the 2008- 2009 school year. By next fall, however, there’ll be 32 kids in those classrooms – a 60 percent increase in just three years.
In the district’s middle and high schools, the ratio has increased by one or two students a year for the past three years. Now some core subject teachers will have more than 40 kids crammed into their classrooms.
“We’ve got 40 kids in an 8th grade algebra class, 38 in a 7th grade geography class, and 42 kids in a 6th grade history class,” says Michael DeVries, President of the San Marcos Educator’s Association. “What I’m hearing from teachers is that it much more difficult to be effective because they’re forced to spend more time managing students than instructing them.”
DeVries says the situation is made even worse with the widespread layoffs of support professionals. Now teachers can’t rely on the help of aides and have to manage the ballooning class sizes on their own.
More Students, Less Individual Attention
“If you want teachers to attend to the needs of all students, you have to make it possible for them to work with small groups and individuals,” says Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. “They have to know what each kid can do…They have to be able to spot a child in trouble and step in right away. You just can’t do that with 35 in a class, with no aides and no breaks.”
Kim McClung, head of the English Department at Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, Washington, agrees. She says she puts in just as much effort into five students as she does 35 students, but worries about the lack of one-on-one instruction in large classes.
“The more homogenous the demographics of the classroom are, the less differentiation is required, so there is a little more time to go around to each student,” she says. “But the larger the class, the harder it is to find time to have individual conferences with every student on a regular basis, which impacts both relationship-building and our ability to differentiate.”
She tries very hard to present her lessons in a couple of different ways to anticipate possible questions or misunderstandings so that she can reach more students, and then hopefully find the time to wander the classroom and help the students who need her individual attention.
“Standards are much higher now, and classrooms are much more diverse,” says Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. “Of course, some children will survive, no matter what the class size, but if we want to provide real opportunities to learn to all children, particularly low-income , minority, ELL and special needs students, class sizes must be kept as small as possible.”