Class size has been defined as the number of students who regularly appear in a teacher’s classroom and for whom the teacher is primarily responsible and accountable. It has also been referred to as the number of students for whom a teacher is primarily responsible during a typical lesson. In its simplest form, class size is the number of students in each teacher’s classroom each day.
The reduction of class size has been a topic of heated debate in America. It has taken center stage both in the political and social arenas of American lives. A clearer understanding of issues surrounding class size has significant implications for educational and economic policy. Arguments for reducing class size include increasing individualized instruction, higher quality and more innovative student-centered instruction, increased teacher morale, fewer disruptions, decreased behavioral issues, and greater student engagement. Yet, the majority of the research on class size appears inconclusive at best. This entry explores the research on class size and its implications for educational policy.
History Of Class Size Research
Research on class size began as early as the 1970s and quickly identified a connection between class size and achievement scores. In 1978, Gene V. Glass and Mary Lee Smith synthesized using a meta-analysis of seventy-seven studies and their subsequent 725 effect sizes. Effect sizes measure the strength of a relationship between two variables. Variables are constructs of interest that can be measured, such as class size and achievement (i.e., via test scores).
According to Glass and Smith, reducing class sizes from forty or more to twenty students led to a very small increase in achievement. However, when class sizes dropped to fifteen students or less, there were larger effects on achievement. Yet due to the fact that the studies looked at were of short duration and included non-school-related cases such as tennis coaching, this analysis faced much criticism.
In 1989, Robert E. Slavin reevaluated only the studies that met higher criteria: lasting at least one year, involving a substantial reduction in class size, and random assignment or matching of students across larger and smaller classes (characteristics of scientific research that ensure differences in classrooms are not due to other factors aside from class size). Slavin concluded that substantial reductions in class size have small positive effects on students. These effects were not found to be cumulative, and disappeared within a few years.
In 1985, due to the stir caused by Glass and Smith’s compilation of studies, and positive news coming from the state of Indiana regarding their class-size reduction program, a landmark study emerged. For Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), about 6,500 students in 329 classrooms in 79 schools (from rural, suburban, urban, and inner-city settings) entering kindergarten, were randomly placed in either a regular class (twenty-two to twenty-six students), a small class (thirteen to seventeen students), or a regular class with a full-time teacher aide. Participation in this study was voluntary. However, schools had to be large enough to support one control group and two treatment groups at any grade level.
Students involved in this $12 million project were to stay in classes of the same size for three years, and then move to “regular”-size classes afterwards. Teachers were also assigned at random to the various class groups without any special instructions. The study found that in each grade, the benefits of additional years in a small class were greater. Interestingly, after the students returned to regular-size classes, the effects began to decrease. In addition, when looking at gains over time, John Hattie found that the greatest gains in reading were made by the students in regular-size classes. One should note however, that for this project, as mentioned previously, regular-size classrooms consist of twenty-two to twenty-six students.
A notable finding that emerged was that effects sizes were greater (almost double) for minority students compared to White students in all achievement areas, and zero effects were found for student motivation and self-concept. Once again, flaws in the project raised questions. Bias may have been evident due to the fact that the schools participating were not random, but voluntary. Also, teachers’ awareness of the project and desire for smaller classes may have caused them to work harder for more positive results.
Nonetheless, other states followed in Tennessee’s footsteps. Unfortunately, when California tried a similar study in 1996, it was suffering from a shortage of teachers. The speed in implementation of California’s initiative resulted in lax standards for hiring educators. Thus, in 2003, 15 percent of California teachers in Grades 4 through 12 were not fully certified. Nonetheless, the results were positive for smaller classes. However, researchers found that due to uncontrollable factors in the study, gains could not be attributed directly to reduced class sizes.
The history of class size research has been plagued by inconsistencies and contradictions. Factors contributing to the difficulty in equally considering studies on this matter include the use of pupil-teacher ratio as a definition for class size in some studies, the context-embedded nature of educational research, and the fact that class size interacts in complex ways with a range of other variables.
Nonetheless, it appears that attending smaller classes for three or more years increases the likelihood of long-term carryover effects. When analyzing small versus large classes, the literature appears to consider the class with fifteen to twenty students a smaller, more ideal class size. Small classes can provide conditions for better academic performance in content area subjects for bilingual students. In addition, smaller class sizes appear to be especially beneficial for at-risk or struggling students.
Teachers and parents strongly advocate small classes. Thus, other benefits of small classes are content parents and higher teacher morale. In fact, private “elite” schools advertise smaller classes as a bonus. Market research reveals that this advertisement is indeed an attractive feature for parents.
However, studies have also found that teachers that get smaller classes may be holding on to the same teaching methods they used with larger classes, and thus need to be trained in more effective methods that can be used with smaller classes.
Smaller classes have also been linked to higher attainment in reading in the “early” years of school. And at the high school language arts level, smaller classes create a more feasible workload for teachers grading writing assignments.
Factors To Consider In Class Size Reduction
There are many factors to consider when looking at reducing class sizes for public policy. It is a very expensive intervention, requiring more teachers, buildings, and supplies. In addition, a rapid expansion of the policy may lead to a deterioration in average teacher quality in schools. This is a significant facet to consider when the literature shows that the quality of teachers appears to have a larger impact on student achievement than any other school-related factor. The literature also points to the fact that disruptive students can disrupt a small class just as badly as a large one.
The average number of pupils per teacher in American public and private elementary schools between 1969 and 1997 fell from 25.1 to 18.3, a decline of greater than 27 percent. In secondary schools, class sizes also dropped from 19.7 to 14.0. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, showed no significant or consistent gains in academic performance during this time period.
Many studies look to these small improvements on standardized tests as a reason why reducing class sizes may prove unfruitful. However, those in favor of smaller classes argue that better work-related conditions for students and teachers and other beneficial factors affected by a smaller class size (i.e., high school dropout rates) may not translate into effects on student learning as measured by these standardized tests. Demographic shifts in our country also make it difficult to isolate effects of reductions in pupilteacher ratios.
Class size is not only a topic of interest in America but abroad as well. Ideal class sizes appear to be culturally connected. Societies that focus on collective group identity may function better with larger class sizes as opposed to individualized cultures. Thus, in Japan, for example, there are substantially larger class sizes than in the United States.
In conclusion, class size remains a highly political issue for policy makers. Research findings are not necessarily conclusive, although the general trend seems to be to consider smaller classes as being better.
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