Politicians Ignore Research, Say Smaller Class Size Makes No Difference

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.”

  • This may be the party line because from where they stand costs have to be kept down. However, how many of these politicians send their children to private schools with small classes? And disruptive children are asked to leave.

  • Mary Anne McGrory

    I teach middle school in Idaho. I had one class that had so many students that a kid would have to sit at my desk as I had no more room for student desks. During the annual fire marshall inspection, during a smaller class, I was told by the fire marshall that I needed to move some of the desks out as I was in violation of the fire code. I handed him my phone and told him to call the state Superintendent of Education as under his leadership, class sizes have increased and every desk was used in one of my classes.

  • Cori

    These same politicians would not agree have their work load, or constituency doubled, if they had to actually address either personally. As usual, this silly argument comes down to money- as larger classes reduce the costs of the teaching force. At my current school, veteran teachers were “consolidated” to save money and my third grade class role has jumped from 20 to almost 30. That’s less attention to each student- period. Less attention to their growth, their loss, their behavior, their needs, their smile. The most salient point is that bigger classes make a hard job harder. The “best” private schools all tout their teacher/student ratio – because EVERYONE knows how well it works to have the undivided attention of instruction.

  • Anastasia P

    Yet Mr. Romney attended a school whose current average class size is 15, and he wrote huge tuition checks so his sons could go to a school with a class size of 12. Why? So much about the education discussion seems like we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth. We hear about some school systems demanding a longer school day (often without additional compensation for teachers); then we hear of school systems cutting back to four days in order to save money and justifying it by saying it doesn’t matter. We say we want to “highly effective” and outstandingly qualified teacher in every classroom, yet we turn around and claim their jobs can be done by undertrained Teach for America temps. It often seems to me that when it comes to discussing education, the parties involved say whatever is convenient to their ulterior motive.

  • Courteney Manning

    It seems like we have no support but more requirements. How are children supposed to be successful in large size classes? In some states, para’s have been taken away, so now there are more children and less help. How are teachers expected to be higly-effective under these circumstances?

  • Ryan Maxwell

    I couldn’t agree more with the findings of the STAR and SAGE studies. I can speak from my own personal experiences how much more effective I am at managing misbehavior in my classes when the numbers are lower. With the number of students with attention related concerns, higher numbers will only hurt their performance.

  • Pingback: Back to School Tomorrow « Parents 4 Magnolia – Busting Gulen charter schools myths()

  • I am really loving the theme/design of your web site. Do you
    ever run into any web browser compatibility issues?
    A few of my blog readers have complained about my site
    not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox.
    Do you have any solutions to help fix this issue?