« Covering the Filipino teacher suicides | Main | Speaking Spanish on the school bus »

February 25, 2008

Study finds limits to class-size reduction reform

Education Week is reporting on a new study suggesting that class-size reduction "might not necessarily reduce the achievement gaps that exist between students in a given classroom." (A summary of the article is here; sorry, you'll need an EdWeek registration to get the whole thing.) The study found that class-size reducation can improve test scores overall.

In my eight years as an education reporter, I've seen mixed results of class-size reduction initiatives. I was working in California after that state mandated caps of 20 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes. The result at first was an acute teacher shortage, and schools found themselves hiring teachers they wouldn't have otherwise. In addition, many of the best teachers in low-performing districts left to fill the new job openings in more affluent, higher-performing schools.

Ideally, of course, every child would be in a small class with a great teacher. But few parents would choose a small class with a mediocre or lousy teacher over a big class with a great teacher. On the other hand, class size is one of the biggest factors predicting teachers' satisfaction in their jobs. And if that great teacher with a big class gets burnt out and quits, then everyone loses out. Having small classes seems particularly important to English teachers and others who spend a lot of time on every paper they grade.

I'd be interested to hear from teachers about how your class sizes have impacted not only your personal satisfaction in your job, but also your students' achievement. Does the study's conclusion ring true?

You can find more information here on Project STAR, the Tennessee class-size reduction initiative on which the study is based.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Study, study!, Teaching


All true. The formula should always begin with a competent, skilled teacher. The next step is to limit class size--for many reasons--better behavior management; less interruptions; more individual attention; increased ability to identify and attend to students' strengths, weaknesses, and needs; less teacher burnout. Class size DOES matter--but not just in elementary and middle schools. High school, where teacher workload increases, where established behavior problems grow and become unmanageable, where students tend to lose hope and drop out because they fall behind, seems to get left out of the formula all too often.

As a former high school English teacher working an average of 50-60 hours per week I left the profession because of the insurmountable expectations and responsibilities that were heaped on the teacher. Facing (on average) 150 students per day I was unable to fully meet their needs, yet expected to perform feats akin to Superheroes. The classes usually also contained students with such diverse levels of ability and needs that it was impossible to give them the quality of education they needed and deserved.

A comment once made by a Social Studies teacher still rings in my ears today. It went something like, "English teachers are the smartest and the dumbest teachers in the school. They have the most responsibility and work harder than everybody else, but they get paid the same salary."

Teachers are some of the nicest, most decent people I've ever known, yet they are constantly criticized, disrespected, abused and exploited by students, parents, communities and school systems. Teachers are treated more like drones than highly-educated professionals. Until teachers unite and take a stand they will continue to be the scapegoats for society's failures.

I write about class sizes all the time. When I began my career 7 years ago in the BCPSS, I had three classes (on a block semester schedule) of around 25-28 each. I now have five classes of around 33-37 each. Thus, my load - always a very important thing to note when discussing class size - has increased from around 80 to around 170 at a time.

(By the way, we moved away from the block schedule, apparently, to accomondate state testing mandates.)

Now, the amount of essays I assign is much less. The turnaround on grading is much longer. The feedback isn't always as detailed as I'd like. I've had to incorporate many new strategies into feedback - more peer review, for example - and I'm not always sure that they work. It's frustrating and I'm sure it affects student achievement, because research suggests over and over again that student writing improves most dramatically from consistent and timely feedback from the audience.

On a personal level, the difference between teaching a class of 37 and a class of 27 is dramatic. There's never any down time with a class of 37, never a moment when the ship doesn't have to be as tight as possible. With 27, there's much more opportunity to meet with a student one-on-one, or even crouch down to help a student with a particular aspect of writing. My 10th period class this year happens to be under 30, my only one that is (and it's because I've had a few students move or drop out since the beginning of the school year). It's not a surprise that it's by far my best-behaved and highest-achieving class.

Another point is simple logistics. I don't teach in an auditorium. My classes are inching their way toward 40; I don't have anywhere to put them! I highly doubt the kid writing on top of the heater is being done justice. All of us are crammed in there like sardines and then add on that there is no A/C in the fall/spring and the heat is pumped up to 90 in the winter, it really makes for an uncomfortable environment.

All so true. Thanks for the good comments so far from Epiphany and Mo.

Workload: this is rough. I have over 150 students of huge differences in skills. Smallest class is 22 (a dream, real discussions!) and largest is 35. This year I've noticed the difference more than ever before. I can do more things with fewer. But, because I've had issues as far as the class with 35, I notice it makes me sharper-- that as was suggested above, I have to tighten the ship.

Doing the Math: giving one substantive assignment per week = 150 papers to read and grade. Giving four assignments per week = 600 papers to read. This is where backups happen, so to keep the children challenged and working, shortcuts like grade based on "completion", or spot checks happen. This is what happens with English teachers! Too many piles of work. Hard to stay balanced; and since actively assessing children by what they write and how they think is one of the best ways I can see how the whole class is learning (or individuals who otherwise don't raise their hands) and how I am doing as a teacher!

B-A-L-A-N-C-E: Around this time, when Spring is peeking, I get lazier too. I want to be out raking the yard and planting flowers, not reading 15 year olds papers, right? So I usually keep in mind that I will work as hard as students do. Hard to strike this balance when you care about how they are growing.

Class size does matter. When I first began teaching in FL, there were state-mandated limits of 100 student contacts per day for English. There was also a tightly constructed set of expected outcomes for those students that had to be taught and completed. BALANCE was the key. 100 students may not seem like a large student load but grading 100 papers 2 to 3 times per week is overwhelming. What complicates the matter in BCPSS is that class size is not balanced by discipline--PE teachers normally have up to 40; CTE instructors sometimes have as few as 4 in a single class. When your school is staffed based upon the total number of students and not what the students are taking, inequities are abundant. No wonder teachers burn out much faster than they used to.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Please enter the letter "c" in the field below:

2011 Valedictorians and Salutatorians
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Education news
• InsideEd's glossary of education jargon

School closings and delays's school closings database is designed to provide up-to-date, easy-to-access information in the event of inclement weather.

Find out if your school is participating and sign up for e-mail alerts.
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Spread the word about InsideEd
Blog updates
Recent updates to news blogs
 Subscribe to this feed
Stay connected