As all school budgets tighten a bit as funding shrinks, a common theme is to eliminate teachers and just make the class sizes larger. While there is no doubt that this strategy can save a good chunk of money, the question is whether it is worth it. Is there an academic benefit to having smaller class sizes?
What the Research Shows
Research demonstrates that there is a direct correlation between student achievement and class size, especially in the case of elementary schools. For instance, there was a study conducted nearly 30 years ago that spoke of the serious benefits associated with smaller class sizes.
Project STAR existed from 1985 to 1989 and involved 11,600 students from the state of Tennessee in the United States. It focused on kindergarten to third-grade students only. Students were randomly assigned to three different class sizes. They were either placed in classes that contained 13 to 17 students, 22 to 25 students, or over 25 students.
The results were extremely interesting in how the smaller class sizes affected the students’ scores now and into the future. For example, students that were in classes where there were 13 to 17 students scored eight percent higher in reading than the students in the 22 to 25 student classes. They also had nine percent higher math scores than the medium-sized group as well.
The gains did not stop there. The students that were in the smallest class were more likely to go on to college as well. This was true across the board, especially for minorities. It was calculated that if class sizes on average were reduced from 22 students to 15 students, there would be a 5.5 percent return in annual benefits, including each student’s lifetime earnings.
Secondary School Academic Benefits
The US Department of Education measured the level of achievement of 2,561 students coming from all fifty states. The research showed that small class size was the main reason for success. In fact, it beat out school size and even teacher credentials. More importantly for students in secondary schools, the level of achievement was even more prevalent in the upper grades.
My Own Experience as a Student and an Educator
I have experience with this topic as both a primary student and a primary teacher. As a child, I attended an elementary school where there were less than ten students in my class most years. Not only did the low number of students make it seem like more of a family atmosphere, but we hardly ever moved on to a new topic in class until everyone had mastered what we were currently working on. The classroom teacher knew exactly which students were learning the subject and which ones could use a bit of extra help on the side.
Once my tiny school consolidated with a much larger one, I will be the first to admit that I got lost in the shuffle as a student and had trouble originally keeping up with everyone else. My grades suffered tremendously because of it.
As an educator, most of my class sizes have been between 22 and 30 students. However, as a Reading Specialist, there were a few years where I only worked with students in small groups. The groups were usually no larger than seven or eight students. This led to students making tremendous progress with their reading achievement as I was able to focus directly on their strengths and weaknesses. If I would have had more students, I would not have been able to concentrate directly on each of the students.
It All Comes Down to Funding
You will hear administration and board members proclaiming often that class size does not matter in education. Once you hear someone say this, however, you instantly know that they have never taught in a classroom before. It matters in a variety of ways from controlling behavior, class management, and being able to focus on academics.
The only reason they downplay class size is because they often do not have the funding to make smaller class sizes happen. Still, if you search hard enough, you may be able to come across a school, more likely private rather than public, that knows the importance of keeping class sizes manageable rather than throwing as many kids into a room as physically possible. Research shows that the investment we make in our kids today will pay off immensely in the future.
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