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Class Size Matters

A petition filed on behalf of nine parents from every New York City borough with the State Commissioner of Education charging that the local Department of Education has not reduced class size as required by the Contract for Excellence Law is a reminder that the issue is far from settled ("Parents File Complaint to New York State, Demanding Reduced Class Sizes," educationviews.org, Jul. 5).  Whatever the outcome, the matter warrants a closer look.

In the latest lawsuit, plaintiffs point out that the city Department of Education has never delivered on its promise to restrict the size of classes at different levels at a stipulated number.  In fact, class sizes have increased dramatically since 2007, particularly in the early grades.

Small class size has great intuitive appeal.  Yet there is another side of the story.  Research has shown that the issue is more complex than it initially appears. In this regard, Tennessee's Project STAR in 1985 remains the single best answer.  It found that from K-3, smaller class size can boost student achievement.  But a study of 35 charter schools for the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2011 found that class size was not correlated with instructional effectiveness.

I find the latter study unconvincing. For one thing, it looked only at a small number of charter schools.  Let's not forget that charter schools play by a different set of rules than traditional public schools.  Equally noteworthy is that not all outcomes can be quantified.  For example, the relationship between teachers and their students is hard to measure but plays a powerful role in attitudes toward lifelong learning.  Small classes that allow teachers to get to know their students on a personal basis are more likely to inculcate positive attitudes in this regard.

When I was teaching English, my classes on average consisted of 34 students. Rarely did I have a class with as few as 25 students.  Private schools take great pride in telling parents about the size of their classes.  They know from experience that size matters.  Too bad public schools can't compete.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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