Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Effect of Smaller Class Sizes

Anyone who has ever taught knows that smaller class sizes typically mean better results for the students in that class. It disturbs me when I hear other adults who rip on teachers who push for smaller class sizes as being lazy or wanting to make the job easier, rather than placing the focus on students and what is best for them. A few days ago I overheard a parent speaking in a negative manner about a local school that was trying to get more money in order to help reduce class sizes by a couple students. The classic complaints that schools already have too much funding and have incompetent teachers made it into his argument. I could not help but ask him if his kids ever had difficulty in a class, to which he replied "Yes." I asked what he did for them and he mentioned that a tutor helped to get them back on track in school and they ended up doing fine. He soon realized he shot a hole larger than the one in the ozone layer in his argument about what the schools wanted, and agreed that if the ultimate 'small class' of one with a tutor made the difference for his own child, then he could understand why teachers want to have slightly smaller classes, in order to spend more one-on-one or small group time with students who are having difficulty learning and growing.

The Education Testing Service (ETS) recently found that the percentage of high school graduates peaked in 1969 at 77%. By 2001, graduation rates slipped to 69%. This percentage eaked up into the low 70s in 2002 and 2003. It is disturbing enough when some 30% of all high school students around the nation do not get their diplomas. It is more disturbing when one considers that for African-American and Hispanic students, graduation rates are typically around 50%...half of the students in these minority groups (who tend to be low income) do not get their diplomas. This is a staggering statistic, but from my days in the Chicago Public Schools I know it is true. There are all sorts of reasons for the dropout students, and the reason varies tremendously from one individual to the next. What I also know to be true from personal experience is that city schools, which tend to have large numbers of low income, minority students (who are most at risk for dropping out), also tend to be overcrowded and have large class sizes, often over 30 students per class.

A study of Tennessee schools back in the 1980s found that students in smaller classes (13-17 students) were 11% more likely to graduate than students who were in classes with 22-26 students. This was a statistically significant result that has been cnofirmed in follow-up studies. What's more, low-income children were nearly twice as likely to graduate if they had small classes in primary school. Smaller class sizes allow more access to teachers by students who are struggling. Smaller class sizes allow teachers to know their students better, and have a better grasp of individual learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. Small classes tend to have fewer discipline problems, which means more time can be devoted to learning.

This is not rocket science, but there are still those who believe educators are simply looking to make life easier on themselves when they ask for more money to hire more (overpaid) teachers to reduce class sizes. The data do not support the conclusion that small class size do not help, nor does anedotal evidence from teachers. If anything, we can keep reminding opponents of small class sizes that if their kids ever had tutoring that helped improve performance, they should seriously reconsider their views and complaints about smaller class size. To extend on this topic, we should remind proponents of vouchers and No Child Left Behind that taking money away from a public school (which has a good chance of being overcrowded) in order to send students to private schools (which likely limit enrollment in classes to keep the numbers manageable for teachers) only makes matters worse for all those students who remain at the public school.

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