Class Size Matters

By Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D.

Many studies have shown that if there is a "magic bullet" that raises the educational achievement of children, it is reducing class size, particularly in the early grades. As Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin recently concluded, "There is no longer any argument about whether or not reducing class size in the primary grades increases student achievement. The evidence is quite clear: It does." Why are smaller classes so effective in helping children learn?

-Reducing class size makes sure that increased expenditures get to the classroom, where they belong.

-Controlled studies from Tennessee, Milwaukee and elsewhere show that children who are in smaller classes score significantly higher in reading and math. The Tennessee class-size research, called STAR, reveals that children in all socio-economic groups benefit from being placed in smaller classes.

-Smaller classes especially benefit children from minority and low-income backgrounds who need more support. Results from Wisconsin reveal that low-income first graders in small classes score significantly higher in reading and math than similar students in larger classes. African-American males made the largest gains, with test scores 40% above the control group.  In the Tennessee program, a 12% gap between white and black students in passing a first grade skills test was reduced to only 1% for those who were in smaller classes.

-The benefits of class size reduction in the early grades last throughout a student's educational career. The STAR research shows that students who had been placed in small classes in grades K-3 continue to outperform others right through high school, with higher graduation rates, higher grade point averages, and a greater likelihood to be headed towards college. In particular, attendance in small classes in the early grades cuts the gap between black and white students taking college entrance exams in half.

-As schools move towards higher standards, smaller classes are increasingly critical. Marc Tucker, the President of the National Center on Education and the Economy, considered the "guru" of standards-based education, calls for reducing the size of classes in grades K-2. Reduced class sizes are also important as teaching methods increasingly emphasize hands-on and individualized learning, rather than rote memorization.

-Smaller classes are a very cost-effective strategy to lower the number of students who have to repeat grades. In the Tennessee STAR study, 17% of inner-city students who had been placed in small classes in the early grades were held back through the 9th grade, compared to 44% of those from similar backgrounds who had been put in regular sized classes.

-Smaller classes allow teachers to focus more on instruction and less on classroom discipline. Suspensions in three suburban Sacramento school district are down 19% since the state of California lowered class sizes in grades K- 3rd.

-Reduced class size enhances the communication between parents and teachers. Researchers have noted that parents with children in smaller classes follow-up with their teachers more frequently, and on a sustained basis.

-Smaller classes save money, because it prevents many unnecessary referrals into expensive special education programs. Teachers can identify children with special learning problems early and give them effective help in the regular classroom. In the same three California districts, referrals of students to special education have dropped 16 percent.

-Class size reduction raises children's educational achievement levels more than vouchers. In a recent study of the Milwaukee voucher program, Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University found that students who remained in public schools but in smaller classes made "substantially faster gains" in reading compared to those who used vouchers to transfer to private schools.

 -Smaller class sizes in New York City will also keep more middle class families in the city rather than move to the suburbs, ensuring that they remain on the city's tax rolls. In California, smaller classes have caused parents to return to the public school system, after having earlier sent their children to private schools.

-Reducing class sizes in New York City will also help recruit highly qualified teachers to urban settings, rather than suburban schools where smaller classes are the norm. Smaller classes will also cause teachers to stay in the profession longer, because they won't burn out as easily.

It is for these and other reasons that more than 30 states have moved towards reducing class size. Surveys in states that have done so reveal that parents, teachers and principals are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the results, and convinced that it was well worth the cost.

Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D. is a practising special education teacher.
Used with permission: Copyright, 2005, Dr. Steven W. Simpson, Simpson Communications.
See also Special Education: The Myth of Least Restrictive Environment here . . .

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