Michigan high school teacher Laura Sauer teaches two class periods that are nearly identical in demographics but much less similar in academic achievement. One of Sauer’s English classes has consistently higher test scores, and consistently better writing samples and class presentations.
What makes that difference, Sauer explains, is the number of students in each class.
Sauer’s better-performing English class is made up of 20 students while her other period has 30 students, a disparity she attributes to her school’s scheduling system.
“This has happened throughout my teaching career,” Sauer said. “And the students in the smaller class know that their education is better. They tell me, ‘I would much rather be in this class.’”
Sauer is just one of the countless educators across the nation who are incredulous that politicians are still questioning whether class size really matters. The issue was spotlighted last month when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney commented that small class size has no correlation with student achievement. But despite the issue’s current prominence, both Sauer and Leonie Haimson, the founder and Executive Director of Class Size Matters , believe the long-standing debate needs to be much more human-centric than mere political fodder.
Sauer’s primary concern is that large class sizes are a disservice to students everywhere. Her second concern, however, is the negative effect increasingly large class sizes will have on her profession. Sauer said she fears the severe restrictions large classes impose on the teaching practice will dissuade top candidates from entering the profession and cause current education professionals to quit their jobs.
“Those who are truly devoted to the craft need certain conditions in order to perform their best,” Sauer said. “Honestly, increasing class size is going to cause qualified professionals to leave the profession. I’ve seen it, and it’s very sad.”
Leonie Haimson believes large class sizes will “destroy public education.” Smaller class sizes, Haimson argues, is one of the only techniques that can truly improve students’ learning experience.
“There are only a handful of methods in education reform that have been proven to work,” Haimson explains. “Class size reduction is one of them.”
Haimson points to research including long-term experiments such as Tennessee’s 1980’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (Project STAR), which has long been heralded as definitive proof of the difference class size makes in student achievement, and Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program.
In examining both Project STAR and SAGE, experts found that students in the smaller classes performed better than those in larger classes. Minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students made the most gains, according to the Center for Public Education (CPE).
Haimson said those disadvantaged students, who may not receive as much academic support outside of the classroom as white, middle-class students do, will only improve if placed in small classes in which a teacher can give students the specific attention and support they need.
“We will never successfully narrow the achievement gap without smaller class sizes,” she said.
Furthermore, despite previous research that suggests small class sizes only make a difference in students’ education in Kindergarten through the third grade, CPE reported that students placed in smaller classes have higher scores through the beginning of high school than do their peers consistently placed in larger classes.
And because reducing class size produces such academic benefits, Haimson said keeping classes small is ultimately the more cost-effective option.
“Many studies have shown that class size reduction will pay for itself many times over with better healthcare, increased earning potential and lower crime rates,” Haimson said. “With education spending, the point is not to be as cheap as possible, it’s to be as smart as possible.”