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Class-Size Controversy

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In a recent Teacher Leaders Network column, Bill Ferriter writes that, despite their appeal, class-size reduction efforts aren't always in the best interests of students or the teaching profession. He says that, if not accompanied by larger reform initiatives, they can exacerbate teacher-supply and facilities problems and place more students in classes with underprepared educators. "Class-size reductions are ... political smokescreens," he writes, "allowing decision-makers to ignore the more costly and complex task of attracting, developing, and retaining highly accomplished teachers for America's classrooms."

What's your view? Are class-size reduction efforts ultimately helpful or harmful? What's been your experience?

38 Comments

I think that Mr. Ferriter's conclusion is incorrect. The problem that exists isn't the concept of class size reduction but rather the implementation of the concept.

I had the (mis)fortune of attending high school in California shortly after Prop 13 passed. My school was a brand new high school in a rapidly growing area of Southern California. The majority of my classes had 38 students in them, and these were the Honors classes! Learning was difficult at best when the teachers struggled to learn student names let alone their needs. When I compare the experience to that of my middle school in Pennsylvania where class sizes were closer to 20 or 25 the difference in learning was night and day.

Rather than writing off the class size reduction, let's work on better ways to fund and implement the concept. And, frankly, I think many of those ideas are in Mr. Ferriter's column.

Thank you!

Guaranteeing an adequate, continuing supply of computer programmers in the '90s required business to look outside the "box" - the result is that now training can be done online, programmers from other countries can be hired to work cheaply on a per-project or hourly basis via the internet, and salaries for US programmers are lower.

Market economics suggests it's not likely a revolution will occur that will make teacher salaries climb higher than those of the average corporate middle-manager.

I think what we'll see is more pod/videocasting by excellent teachers giving lessons remotely, virtual high schools, and videocast teachers in classrooms supported in person only by a teachers' assistant. Perhaps we'll come to the day when "live" teaching is given only to the under- and over-achieving, or those who can afford to homeschool.

When the dual-income consumer economy became standard, we sacrificed some of that early socialization. I'd bet that we'll sacrifice even more (by setting up virtual classrooms) to "solve" the overcrowding/qualified teacher problem.

Give "accomplished professionals" 30 plus students AND an all-day assistant to deal with the volume of paperwork and chaos.

Heck, give them 40! With a little creativity, we can lower the salary base and every child can be taught by the 'best' No relationships, but it will be more 'collegiate.'

Yeah! Graduate assistants for every 'accomplished professional's' classroom.

Well, of COURSE, class size alone alters little. Consider: Smaller classes are like sharper syringes for communicable diseases. If not filled with the proper vaccine -- and if not actually and professionally stuck in someone's sick arse -- they are useless.

I had science classes with over 50 students (La Quinta, CA) and Health Professions classes with 14 students (Moreno Valley, CA).

The class with 14 students learn more because of the intimate nature of our teacher/student relationship.

The class with 50 students was nearly crowd control. Teacher/student relationship was nill.

The teacher/student relationship cannot be of any reasonable nature with more the 20 or so students per class. To say otherwise is just plain foolish.

Because I use a lot of cooperative learning, I just can't get a good group dynamic with small classes and thus really dislike classes under 20. However, I have been at three different high schools that are bursting at the seams and generally have 30+ in all classes. At that class size, getting through material and activities in a timely fashion is a struggle, even with classes like AP Calculus where discipline is not an issue. There does seem to be an optimal point around 24 - 28 students, based on my experience teaching high school math for 18 years.

As a public school teacher in an urban setting, I can tell you that smaller class sizes is by far the best tool available to actually shrinking the achievement gap. I don't know what Bill Ferriter's school looks like as far as poor and minority but ten to one its make-up is more like that of a suburban or private school. Those schools would not benifit from smaller class sizes. But those schools are not part of the achievement gap, at least not to the degree that are urban public schools. Yes, new teachers will strugle at first. But so did I and so did Mr. Ferriter.
As far as I'm concerned, anyone who thinks that smaller class sizes would not benifit the disadvantaged child has either never taught in a setting like that or has got a screw loose. Take your pick!

As a public school teacher in an urban setting, I can tell you that smaller class sizes is by far the best tool available to actually shrinking the achievement gap. I don't know what Bill Ferriter's school looks like as far as poor and minority but ten to one its make-up is more like that of a suburban or private school. Those schools would not benifit from smaller class sizes. But those schools are not part of the achievement gap, at least not to the degree that are urban public schools. Yes, new teachers will strugle at first. But so did I and so did Mr. Ferriter.
As far as I'm concerned, anyone who thinks that smaller class sizes would not benifit the disadvantaged child has either never taught in a setting like that or has got a screw loose. Take your pick!

Of course class size reduction is not the be all end all solution for fixing schools. However, it is a great start. To say that class size reduction must be accompanied by other reforms like hiring and retaining qualified teachers, etc. is a fairly obvious and somewhat boneheaded statement. Mr. Ferriter seems to be characterizing the move as a bad decision that will only further worsen educational quality. It sounds like he wrote this article merely to create discussion about himself-and, oh look!-he has.

I'm in the "lower class size" camp. Having begun my carreer with 36 fifth graders in 1992, I know that the students under 28 benefitted from the attention and care I could give them. However, even 10 students in a class taught by a non-professional teacher will be a waste of everyone's time. Research has shown the difference lies with the level of excellence in the teacher.

Why doesn't anyone ever care about the teacher in all this? Of course student achievement is the bottom line but having a teacher with a reasonable work load has got to be an important factor. One of the reasons teachers leave the profession is burnout. Doesn't it stand to reason that a teacher with 20 students wouldn't have the stress level of one with 36 students?
I do understand what the author is saying though. When California reduced class size K-3, we had an influx of non-credentialed "teachers". It took awhile for them to learn on the job, and it probably had a negative net effect for those students. We must be serious about teacher training and SUPPORT.

As a high school teacher, every year I do something of a controlled experiment, although not necessarily by choice. In one year I can have classes with 15 students, with 20, and with 35. I can say with certainty that I am a better teacher in the smaller classes. I have more time to spend on enrichment, on varied instruction, and am able to develop valuable relationships with high-needs, poor urban students who are starving for positive adult attention.

Given the nonsense taught in most traditional teacher training programs, which leave pre-service teachers just as poorly prepared for the demands of teaching, traditional certification doesn't necessarily mean the person in front of the classroom is necessarily "highly qualified."

Just because class reduction was implemented poorly at Bill Ferriter's school doesn't mean that class reduction in and of itself is a bad thing.

Christopher Barrious wrote:
To say that class size reduction must be accompanied by other reforms like hiring and retaining qualified teachers, etc. is a fairly obvious and somewhat boneheaded statement.

Thanks for noting the accuracy in my central argument Chris!

It is essential that class size reductions be paired with "other reforms," but all to often they aren't. Instead, what we get are class size reductions for the sake of class size reductions.....with little account for the quality of teacher filling the new positions.

Do you have different experiences? Is your district reducing class sizes, building new facilities, AND pairing accomplished teachers with new recruits in a comprehensive mentoring and support program that is job-embedded and long term?


Chris also wrote:
It sounds like he wrote this article merely to create discussion about himself-and, oh look!-he has.

Actually, I wrote the article to create discussion about something that shapes policy conversations in states across America---and an issue that teachers are often narrow-minded about. By thinking about an issue from multiple perspectives, we deepen our own understanding about an issue, making us better advocates for whatever position that we support.

I've definitely accomplished that goal! I sure hope you have as well.

Rock on,
Bill


Hey Guys,

Here's an interesting thought:

Would you be willing to teach classes with more students if you were paid more money?

You see, states and districts invest millions in salaries for new teachers to meet class size reduction initiatives. What if they took those funds and invested them in higher salaries for teachers?

In Ed Week's focused conversation last week, Douglas Harris, an educational policy professor, wrote about the potential of providing teachers with a 40% raise:

Douglas N. Harris:
A common theme to my answers is that we need to pay attention to cost-effectiveness. To put this in perspective, I've shown in one of my studies that if schools had the same pupil-teacher ratios as they did in 1970, then we could use the money to give every teacher in the country a 40 percent raise. We're talking about a lot of money. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it does mean that we need to carefully consider the alternatives.


Anyone else want a 40% raise?
Bill


Class size really isn't the issue. The issue should be student/teacher ratio. If you have classes with 40 students and two teachers - one a specialist in those particular students and the other a specialist in the subject matter being addressed, kids could have access to the best information in each subject while being known and cared for in their classes. Specialists could deal with lesson plans, while generalists could take attendance, etc. It would also improve the social climate for teachers generally, since they would rarely be alone in the classroom.

Class size _is_ the issue. When I found that my first period class this year (8th grade math) had 34 kids including 9 with IEPs and 9 with ADHD, I just about died. I had a resource aide, but with so many kids in a room designed for 24 - 30 students, it was difficult to even move from one student to another. The negativity that emerges from students crowded in this way -- and these were all students who had known academic defeat -- was devastating to those few who really were there to learn. Large class sizes force us to teach to the middle; there is no way to individualize education in an environment like this. Large class sizes make it difficult to even get to know the kids and their various needs, much less actually serve them. Strategies like grouping, pull=asides, quiet corners, study carrels are all out of the question when there is barely room to breathe.

The problem with class size language is that one size does not fit all. The STAR study in Tennessee clearly showed that you get the biggest impact from small class size in primary grades, and with children in disadvantaged schools. (It also showed that teacher efficacy is more than twice as important as class size.) Another finding from the study: having an aide in the classroom to handle paperwork and other duties had zero impact on student achievement.

So--it makes sense to reduce class size in some circumstances, even though class size reduction is a very expensive reform. With older students, and a secondary organization model, we might be better off concentrating on teacher quality and total student load rather than class size. Teachers who demonstrate proficiency and want larger class sizes could be paid more for handling the larger work load. Technology may make mandated class size an antiquated concept very soon, anyway.

As for Doug Harris' thought that if schools returned to pupil-teacher ratios of the 70s, we could afford 40% raises for teachers--well, Dr. Harris fails to note that those ratios are smaller today largely due to the explosion of mandated special education programs. Do we want to eliminate or drastically reduce special education services? (Just asking.) Some children are more expensive to educate.

Should teachers have input into these resource allocation issues that impact their daily work lives--and compensation? I say yes.


I think you are confusing the issue of class size reduction with other problems that may then result (qualified teachers, facilties, etc.) But how can a teacher give individual feedback on meaningful in depth assignments when you end up spending all weekend reading and grading research papers or essays? Instead many teachers end up giving short superficial assignments because it takes too long to look over longer, more meaningful ones. A good teacher really works individually with his/her students to help them be their best. This is not possible in the large upper grade classes. A poor teacher is just that, regard less of class size, a poor teacher.

Red Herring. Clearly, the key phrase in Bill Ferriter's article is "without significant reform efforts" including teacher training. Of course, ANY one change will not create any meaningful shift in education - even "throwing money". There are plenty of educational reformers who have argued that we require a systemic effort, whole school reform to implement meaningful change. We should focus more on looking at a multi-pronged approaches - including class size reductions.

I don't agree with the way the argument is being presented. One side -- the small class size -- is labeled as emotional, while the large class size is labeled as logical. Why are you trying to make this a black and white issue in this manner? If you want to discuss the money behind this, compare a small class to a large class; if you want to compare the relationship and achievement of students, compare both. But don't pretend that one side has all the logic. What a poorly presented idea.

Of course reducing class size is an excellent idea, but it will not produce results without helping teachers to understand how to change their teaching in order to maximize the benefits that smaller classes can bring to both them and their students. When smaller class sizes were first mandated in California, I was a supervisor of student teachers and I noticed that teachers were still teaching as if they had classes of 40, when in reality they had half that amount. Unfortunately, we make the assumption that teachers will intuitively know how to make this transition, when in reality we need to support this change through specialized teacher professional development. There are a different set of strategies that teachers need to employ with smaller groups that can benfit students profoundly and bring a great deal of professinal satisfaction to teachers. In "The New Science Literacy--", many of these ideas are addressed, but it takes on-going professional development with dialog and reflection among teachers and teacher leaders to realize the long term effects that smaller class size can achieve.

well, no matter what the consensus or argument may be, for myself teaching groups of 4 & 5 year olds, I have found that the Magic Number falls right in that 22-23 area for my age group. My kids leave my room each fall for kindergarten well versed in polite societal behaviors, reading basic sight words, able to manipulate low level number groupings, patterns, and predict outcomes of stories, experiments and choices. Sure, there are days when it runs like clockwork with all 29 there and days when 17 of them make you scream. When I taught Jr High I had 29-32, when I had 6th grade it was 25 -27. But overall, for this level, 22 seems to be the most consistent "productive" number.
Hmmm, maybe I need to check with Jim Carey though--it could be "23"...

Author Wrote:
And who pays the bulk of these teacher-quality costs? Is it the students living in wealthy suburbs who go to new schools with supportive parents and tons of resources?

I wanted to comment that in my area of NJ, parents rally for reduced class sizes and we pay for it too. WHY??? Because we know that our children get more attention, our teachers are less strained from overwork and better able to identify children with issues or children who need to be enriched and yes, our kids will get more individualized attention from the teacher. What is wrong with that?? While we are a "wealthy suburb", we receive very little money from the state (96+% of our school budget is funded by taxpayers - - this, in a state where LOTS of our state tax dollars also go to fund Abbott School Districts). We DO know what's best for our children. Oh, and by the way, our schools are very old and in need of repair, but we choose to spend our money on the essentials (teachrs, kids and books). Not all "wealthy" suburbs can afford to have new schools like those N.C. but we make do!

I would like to respond to the idea of taking on larger class sizes for more money. I have taught a class with 20 students. I have also taught a class of 36 students. For me there would be no amount of money that would compensate me for the rise in stress and the loss of personal connection with my students. While I do believe teachers are under compensated monetarily, the greatest reward a teacher can have is knowing they are doing their best for their students. You can't do that in a class with a large number of students.

I'm very thankful for the vote of downsizing classes a few years back in Florida as today our class sizes are 20 or less. It allows for individual instruction and more time for small group instruction in all subjects. This is the first year our school met the FCAT A list. As an aside I met a Canadian teacher that told me they get extra income for every extra student placed in their class.

Some have suggested that Bill's argument tries to paint class size reduction as a black or white argument. I would argue the exact opposite: Bill is attempting to take what is traditionally a black/white argument and add some shades of gray.

Among educators, there appears to be almost universal approval of class size reduction initiatives. Who wouldn't want fewer kids in a class? But I believe that Bill's argument is that, in a world of limited resources, class size reduction initiatives are not in-and-of-themselves always positive things.

If a state legislator passes an initiative of this type, the initiative will quickly eat up lots of dollars (reducing class size means employing more teachers, and that's expensive). Unless additional money, planning, and structure is put in place to support this type of initiative (such as higher quality pre-service training for all the new people attracted to the profession, more construction money to create the new classrooms, etc.), is the initiative likely to do much good? Now, good is defined as improved student learning (that's our business, after all), and the research suggests that class size reduction in-and-of-itself doesn't tend to have a sizable impact on student learning (many people's anecdotal experiences to the contrary). And how often do state legislators put in the additional money, planning, and structure?

In a political world of finite resources, in which our elected representatives too often look for popular, but potentially ineffective, solutions, is class size reduction really what we want to hang our hats on?

As a high school teacher, I have seen the tremendous difference between a class of 25 and a class of 32. Certainly lower class size does increase the need for more teachers at a time when effective, committed teachers are hard to find. But increasing class size will not insure that students get an innovative, caring, highly qualified teacher any more than lower class size will insure that they do not. Large class size may actually drive more of these highly qualified, naturally gifted teachers to "give it up" out of frustration. And the less qualified who are left do an even poorer job with more students.

We do need more highly qualified teachers, and although I cannot speak for the elementary levels, I can tell you that many of those at the middle and high school levels are coming from alternate certification programs. Please give up the "sour grapes" toward those who didn't happen to go through a BS program in education. I received my certification through an alternative program after a beginning career as a medical technologist. I suffered through just as much college as a traditionally certified teacher, and I brought to my new field (which by the way, had been my chosen field since high school but which I was counseled against because "teachers are a dime a dozen")a wealth of experience both in the medical field and as a parent. There are many naturally gifted teachers who have been trained in other areas, and alternative certification programs make it reasonable for these individuals to make the jump to serve in education.
If legislators, administrators, and the public would ever recognize the true worth of a teacher (perhaps more than a "dime a dozen"?)and compensate accordingly both in finances and respect, more "star" teachers would be available for the classroom.

Here's the reality: Reducing class sizes is necessary for substantally increasing achievement, but not sufficient. Why? I have 160 students (32 per class). If I make comments on essays, I can grade 6 per hour. 160/6 = 26 hours. So, do I assign 1 essay per week? Of course not; that would be impossible. As it is, I struggle to grade just the essays for my AP class -- and I am not married with kids, like many of my colleages.

Also, you should see me when I take kids to the library to do research -- 32 hands are in the air at the same time. How much help can I give each kid in 57 minutes? Less than 2 minutes each

Simply put, fewer kids means teachers can assign more rigorous work (most wont; that's why small class sizes are necessary, but not sufficient).
Finally, most of the author's concerns can be addressed by a wee bit of lateral thinking: Assign 2 teachers per classroom. Student/teacher ratio drops, without the need for extra facilities

Class-size reduction is one of those ingredients that adds to success. It is not a cure all for every problem. Students have to be noticed at the high school level and we know learning is maximized when we really know our students. It is much more productive and realistic to know 75 rather than 120 students in a school day. I am not sure how any educator can say they can give good and quality feedback with over-enrolled classrooms. This is especially the case in high schools where students need to be treated as individuals. I am sorry, but the Ford Factory of Schooling, assembly-line methods, I have found to be ineffective and the results are sad. We aren't lecturing as professors here - we are helping young people grow up and appreciate themselves and giving them tools to grow by no matter what class you teach. When students become invisible we all lose.

Please give up the "sour grapes" toward those who didn't happen to go through a BS program in education.

Hey Terri,

I sure am glad that you made it to the classroom and stayed there....but you're in the serious minority. The majority of lateral entry teachers (over 60% in fact) end up leaving the classroom in less than 5 years.

What's more, lateral entry teachers are often not as effective as teachers prepared in traditional programs. Consider this finding from the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey:

"While school characteristics explained only a small amount of variance between schools, the proportion of lateral entry teachers was the strongest predictor of overall high school achievement...For every 10 percent increase in the proportion of lateral entry teachers, overall performance could be expected to decline by 5 percent."

I'm not arguing against lateral entry teachers...I'm arguing against lateral entry teachers that are thrown into classrooms with little practical training or support....Which is common practice in most places.

Your thoughts?
Bill

Marlene Wrote:
Of course reducing class size is an excellent idea, but it will not produce results without helping teachers to understand how to change their teaching in order to maximize the benefits that smaller classes can bring to both them and their students.

This is a brilliant comment...and another long overlooked element of "class size reductions." Teachers get into comfortable patterns in their instruction that are unlikely to change without significant support and professional development.

I know that changing instructional practices for me takes about a year. I'm first introduced to a practice. Then I watch it in action. Then I experiment with it myself. Then I revise or refine. The process is time consuming.

Without coupling class size reductions with professional development, we'll end up with fewer kids listening to lectures.

Interesting thoughts, huh?
Bill

Don't forget that reducing class size also means reducing total number of students, which means reducing the paper-grading load. Ask any teacher who asks students to write whether this makes any difference.

The drawbacks of which Bill speaks are not a result of reducing class size. They come from a failure to PROPERLY reduce class size. It is a law of public education: Don't do it right; do it on a shoestring.

What a silly article this is. Tha tag seems to be aboout a pegagogical debate, then it quickly devolves into something completely different. It's like a bait-and -switch advertising scheme, and it made me disappointed that I even read it because I thought I was going to see some thoughtful commentary on class size. Instead, I got politics. Reminds me of the morale-deflating bean-counter discussions that happen at my school. Pedagogy comes in second, as usual. Oh well.

Tom wrote:
What a silly article this is. Tha tag seems to be aboout a pegagogical debate, then it quickly devolves into something completely different. It's like a bait-and -switch advertising scheme, and it made me disappointed that I even read it because I thought I was going to see some thoughtful commentary on class size. Instead, I got politics.

Unfortunately, Tom, almost all of education is driven by politics. Elected officials control almost every facet of our work...from class size numbers to curriculum choices to assessment tools and teacher evaluation pieces.

Without a firm understanding of the politics behind situations, we cannot be effective as teacher leaders. Without a measure of policy savvy and an awareness of the constraints in which policy makers work, we will never be influential.

Has anyone else realized that becoming effective teacher leaders means developing an awareness of policy and politics? Is that a disconnect/gap that teachers can bridge easily?

Why or why not?
Bill

I have read that small class size is not as effective for student achievement as a good teacher. I have not seen any research that shows how effectively a student in a class of 25 or 45 can learn with the same good teacher. From experience I know that my students receive more of my attention when there are fewer students with whom to share it. My class of 20 receives more personal instruction than my class of 39.

Smaller classes are based on lies.
Tennessee finished Project STAR in 1990. It was the largest and best experiment on smaller classes. The initial report by the Dept. of Educ. contained data in the back of the report which conflicted directly with the "Executive Summary" in front of the same report. The data showed clearly that a 1/3 class reduction improved student gains only somewhat (not cost-effectively) in grades K and 1. It actually REVERSED the gains effects in grades 2 and 3. Moreover, teacher quality was of course not allowed to be affected by the great demand for more teachers.
The smaller-classes advocates don't even know basic arithmetic: When you decrease class size by 33% you must increase number of teachers and classrooms by about 50%. (Check this!!) In other words, for the same money, you could have afforded to give the teachers at least (consider the costs of more classrooms) a 50% increase in salaries and benefits.
The U.S. started with some of the world's smallest classes, even before the last wave of class-size reductions. The states are now beginning to ask just where the promised student gains are.
Limited space does not permit me to present the total embarrassing events and consequences of reducing class sizes. Shame on the "researchers" and politicians!!!
Our students and teachers have plenty of basic 'SMARTS", but we are truly hurting them with our poor policies and professional/political "leaderships." That's why all of us are continuing to slip on the world stage.
John Shacter, [email protected]

The author mentions he is in a district that is growing phenomenally every year but he doesn't say which state it is. Could you please list this state and/or county? My county, San Diego, is shrinking and I'm looking for another job.
Thanks.

Sorry, I should have finished reading the article before I sent that last email but I was so astounded that there were that many job openings somewhere that I just had to send a query.
Now that I've finished the article I do have this to add. The author compares 23 to 30 students per classroom. We've been running 36 to 40 students here (San Diego) for the last 4 years or so. The only reason they've stopped at 40 is that the classrooms (most of them 25 - 30 year old "temporaries") have become fire hazards at that occupancy rate - not to mention mold/mildew repositories, but that's a whole other story.
Maybe we should just go to large lecture halls of 50 to 100 students as in college. The buildings would be cheaper to build, less teachers would be needed, and reform would be easier to implement.
Whose to say what the "magic" number is when it comes to middle school or high school?

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