Class size: Can it Impact Learning?
By Jill Jenkins
According to a recent article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, Judi Clark, the executive director of Parents for Choice in Education stated, “Class size is really irrelevant in this day and age in education. It’s not about how many children you have in the classroom. It’s about how you’re leveraging technology to deliver one-on-one instruction." Charter schools in this state can limit the number of students they have in each class, but public schools cannot. Although the state’s pupil to teacher ratio is 22.8, that is not the same thing a class size. Pupil-teacher ratio takes the total number of credentialed people: counselors, special education teachers and librarians divided by the total number of enrolled students. Actual class size means that actual number of students in a class. In Utah some classes in academic areas have as high as 52 students. Physical Education classes can have over 80 students. As a former teacher I can verify these numbers. The largest number I ever had enrolled in one Language Arts Class was 62 tenth grade students and after three days of having every desk filled and students sitting along counters or standing, the counseling staff removed 1/3 of my students and reassigned them to the teacher next door. Ten years later I was called to jury duty and one of those students who was sent next door was there. She was still angry that, “I had given her away.” However, most of my classes ranged from 35 to 40 students in Language Arts classes and I taught seven periods a day. How do large classes really affect the learning of students?
According to the article, “Class size and Student Achievement” by Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Dominic J. Brewer, Adam Gamoran, and J Douglas Willms from Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell University, there are a number of disadvantages of large class size: first, it can reduce the amount of time students can actively engage with each other; second, it can increase the disruptive behavior in the classroom; third, it can reduce the amount of time the teacher can spend working with each individual student; fourth, it can reduce the material the teacher can cover; fifth, it can eliminate many methods of assessing students i.e. open-ended assessments and writing assignments; and sixth, it can reduce the learning by reducing the kind of teaching methods that the teacher can employ in her classroom. What evidence is there that this actually reduces the learning in an over-crowded classroom? According to the Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Research) completed between 1985-1989, random students from kindergarten to third grade were placed in classes, some with small classes and some with large classes. The students in smaller classes, 13 to 17 students, performed .015 to .020 or about 5% higher on standardized tests in both math and reading. Furthermore, According to the article, “Class size and Student Achievement” by Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Dominic J. Brewer, Adam Gamoran, and J Douglas Willms from Cornell Higher Education Research Institute at Cornell Universitythe Coleman report suggests that students from lower-social economic groups, at-risk students and English Language Learners (E.L.L.) benefit the most from smaller class sizes. Others argue that this only seems true because first, students from higher-economic group often come better prepared for school; second, their more affluent parents select schools with better teaching staffs where students earn higher test scores; and third, they attend schools with more resources. Since salaries of teachers have grown slower than those in jobs requiring similar education levels, it becomes more difficult for district to attract the best and the brightest to become teachers, especially to teach in the most disadvantaged areas that have fewer resources for the teacher to use to instruct students and more problems. Other research shows that the teachers with high verbal ability also improve students’ achievement. If all of this is true then all students would benefit from smaller class sizes. Four other studies: one in California, one in Wisconsin, one in Great Britain and one in Canada showed increased test scores with smaller classes, but their growth were inconsequential in middle school and high school; however, this could mean that the teachers did not change their teaching methodology. Lecturing is a highly ineffective method of teaching. A more student centered approach is possible in smaller classes usually has more positive results.
Most of the effort to reduce class size has been in the grades kindergarten to third grade, but students even in middle schools and high schools could benefit from lower class size. Research indicates that reducing the class size reduces the discipline problems. Furthermore, reducing the class size increases the opportunities for more interactive learning situations which especially benefit the struggling students. For secondary schools there are two goals: lowering the drop-out rate and increasing the standardized test scores. Lowering the class size does both Ironically, in each of these studies, the goal was to reduce class size from 30 students per class to below 20 students per class, but in Utah the class sizes in the upper grades is between 40 and 52 in academic classes and well above 80 in classes like band, physical education or choir. What does that mean in performance? Look at the results of the recent SAGE test with most schools scoring in the “D” or “F” range. These grades are understandable when one considers that often there are not enough working computers for such large classes which mean students have had little chance to complete enough practice writing activities or computer-based learning.
In my own experience, I use less group activities, pair-and share and project based assignments when my classes rise to 40 and above simply because with forty students, desks, backpacks and growing teenagers, it becomes difficult for students to conduct themselves and hear what was going on without disrupting classrooms nearby. Students who are kinetic learners need to be able to move, but in many situations movement becomes dangerous or impossible with that many students in a classroom. For example, I love to allow students to play “Fly-Swatter” tag to review vocabulary or literary terminology. The game consists of writing terms on the board and allowing sets of two or three students run to the board armed with a flyswatter and slap the appropriate word when given the definition then rewarding the winning student with a piece of candy. With forty students in the room, there is not enough space to do this without a student tripping. Furthermore, speeches and group presentations become almost impossibility because if every student gives a three to five minute speech, it will take nearly two weeks to complete the entire class. Correcting research papers or any writing assignment and returning them in a timely fashion becomes more than difficult. Smaller class sizes would give students opportunities to write more, speak more, interact more and create more project learning. To answer Judi Clark’s argument that with enough technology the class size becomes immaterial, I say “hog wash”. If a classroom has 52 large, teenagers with their bag packs smashed into 52 desks all using I-Pads, the room is too full for the teacher to effectively wander around and interact with the students while they work, so like all teenagers, they will begin to go to inappropriate websites and the time will become totally wasted. Guess again Judi, tight budgets means the schools have purchased less expensive computer, so many of them do not function. Most middle schools also lack the band-width for all of them to be using computers at the same time. So, your dream of computer run schools is just a myth.
With the new SAGE tests comprised of students synthesizing information from essays into an argumentative essay and an informative essay, students need a more engaged form of education than lecturing. Having fewer students in each class would allow teacher to provide that kind of learning environment. Students who are engaged in their own learning retain more of what is taught. It would allow teacher to provide more individualized instruction to those struggling students. It could increase both reading and math scores and reduce the drop-out rate. If charters schools are allowed to have a enrollment limits, then the regular public schools should be able to do the same. Ideally no classroom should be above 20 students, but in this age of economic uncertainly lets at least say no class should exceed 30 students. How do we do this? We will need to build more schools and hire more teachers which will cost money. Will the taxpayers willingly pay the higher costs? According to the New York Times, it costs $167,731 per year to house one inmate. Without a good education, people are unable to earn enough money to support themselves and their family. often end up in our penal system. The public is already paying the price of poorly educated students. Would they rather pay for schools or prisons? It is not enough to give birth to a lot of children; we need to provide them with a quality education and making classes smaller is the beginning of doing that.