The Class-Size Pendulum

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One teacher's positive experience with class-size reduction—from 20 years ago.

As various states engage in downsizing K-12 classes, and political leaders announce their support for efforts to reduce class size nationally, educators need to reflect on the practices and politics of the past. This is not, after all, the first time that class size has received attention. For several decades, the issue has been a staple of research reports and political forums.California, for example, is currently embarked on a legislatively mandated program whereby schools across the state will implement small classes at several grade levels. The goal is a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1. But some educators, remembering the past, are asking whether this practice will last.

I offer the following abbreviated version of one teacher's experience in class-size reduction at a California public school in one of the state's large urban districts to lend some perspective to the discussion.

My 3rd grade class at Franklin Elementary School has a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1, and I feel fortunate to team-teach with four other teachers. Because of our restructured schedule, on Fridays, we send our 100 children home early in order to have an intensive, two-hour planning session. As a result of our teaming, we teachers have gotten to know and respect each other.

Five of us (Juanita, Chris, Pam, Alice, and I) share an open-space classroom in which we each have a homeroom space. My own room allows me to have a science center near the sink, a writing center, as well as a game center that currently houses a variety of phonics activities. Because we have the day scheduled for "early birds" and "late birds" reading groups, I have been able to plan for small- group activities without worrying about managing the activities of dozens of other children from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. each morning and from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. each afternoon. My late group is working on publishing their language-experience stories that are based upon our walking visits to five local historical sites. Thanks to the small group size, I can monitor what everyone is doing and coach the students' writing.

All of our rooms open on to a large, carpeted area that allows us to bring our children together for large-group experiences. I play the guitar for our regular singing sessions, while Juanita and Chris lead. We have lessons about various cultures, thanks to our colleagues and parents. Pam prepared a series of lessons on aspects of Japanese culture. The Native American mothers conduct special events for us, including interactive opportunities in dancing, basket weaving, and other tribal traditions. Juanita teaches our African-American sessions.

Our school serves one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. A majority of our students are poor in this densely populated area. I've been invited to visit several homes. My children are far from "perfect," but I have only one child who escapes my efforts to bring him into a positive relationship. He is angry about a lot of things, and I haven't had much success in working with his mom yet. She is often away from home. Still, I just don't give up on V., and I am fortunate that Alice, just across the way, can provide a safe place for him to get away when things are too tense in our room.

I feel good about our class, and I know almost all the parents. I make it a point to make "good" phone calls, and the parents provide opportunities to get to know my kids' stories. I call five students' homes every Friday, so I speak with each parent at least once a month.

Our whole class prepared a group science project for the district science fair. I was able to make sure that everyone understood his or her role for the experiment. Each student placed a bean plant in a different setting and tracked it for a month. We do a lot of hands-on science, and, although I buy a lot of the materials, buying 20 things beats buying 34, the class size of my previous job in Illinois. After doing an analysis of my kids' math tests and daily work, I know exactly who knows what times tables. I meet with the students individually to discuss their success so far and find out what "study bags" they want to take home.

I enjoy thinking about new strategies and, in order to get my California credential, I've been taking two classes at the university. Also, my friend Carol comes over to work with our team on classroom environments that promote independent learning. She is finishing her doctoral work and is teaching in the next district. We are going to conduct observations on students' choices across the curriculum.

The story could go on, but this sampling should provide insight into the activities and perceived benefits experienced in one reduced-size classroom. Engaging children in a meaningful curriculum within a variety of groupings becomes possible when the numbers are manageable. Teachers are able to increase the amount of individual contact they have with children, giving more explanations, checking on papers, and providing encouragement. Reading and writing change when the processes and the communication that surrounds them change. Differences in student motivation and achievement follow.

The bigger story did not, however, have a happy ending.

But this narrative has a somewhat unusual background. Although it sounds very current, it describes events that happened 29 years ago, during one of California's previous periods of class-size reduction. I was the teacher, and mine was among many positive stories told at the time. The bigger story did not, however, have a happy ending.

Class-size reduction came to some California schools as part of legislation known as Senate Bill 210 during the early 1970s. Then it disappeared. The official explanation was that teachers did not do anything differently as a result of their smaller classes.

On the contrary, I believe that policymakers did not pay close enough attention to the factors that did change. The increased amount of individual contact with children allowed for more discussions, checking on papers, and encouragement. We felt confident about planning the next day's and the next week's lessons.

In today's politicized climate, with its increased dependence on standardized tests, I worry that legislators may again change their minds about class-size reduction based on surface impressions, rather than probing the deep structures and narratives of improvements in teaching and learning. Researchers must ask the right people the right questions and conduct in-depth, qualitative studies that involve both teachers and students.

The well-known Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study of 1978 revealed that a child's frequency of contact with the instructor is strongly related to attention in class.

The well-known Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study of 1978 revealed that a child's frequency of contact with the instructor is strongly related to attention in class. In small classes, each student receives a greater portion of the teacher's time and has an opportunity to participate more than in large-group settings. Teachers, in turn, have greater opportunity to monitor behavior and progress when they have fewer students. The reciprocal influence of teacher upon student and student upon teacher is enhanced when there are fewer students.

Other studies have validated these positive effects on attitudes and interactions. When children are taught as part of a large audience, they are not as engaged as they are in small-group contexts. Young children, in particular, do not have the visual or auditory acuity, the behavior control, the problem-solving ability, or the perception to function well in large groups. Face-to-face groups allow teachers to get clear feedback from each child.

For group discussions, groups should be no larger than four or five. As groups grow in size, the chance that one person will remain left out of the interaction increases. Large classes allow individuals to learn, understand, and remember well only if they are also composed of smaller subgroups with meaningful functions within the larger group. Opportunities for interaction, discussion, and communication, as well as for praise and criticism, lead to cohesion. And, clearly, cohesive groups speed and deepen both cognitive and social learning.

When decisionmakers decide on funding allocations, their choices are influenced by whose research gets set out before them. Yet, the information they need to digest represents all kinds and levels of investigation. "Meat and potatoes" thinking isn't enough. Solid academic achievement involves rich and diverse content, positive student attitudes, and high motivation, as well as teachers who have high morale, satisfaction in their work, and a positive attitude toward their students.

As even high-achieving students attest, learning experiences and relations at school have plenty of room for improvement. For students who struggle academically, the quality of learning interactions must be improved. No student should be left out of the learning process.

Lately, the findings of reduced-class-size studies in several states seem to have tipped the scales of thought in the direction of small classes' value. In particular, the well-designed STAR studies in Tennessee have shown that academic gains may indeed be attributed to class-size reduction, regardless of other variables.

Some, however, feel that we may simply be experiencing a swing of the proverbial pendulum in education. They say small classes are a luxury we can avoid if we improve teacher training. A perspective that looks only at points gained on standardized achievement tests fosters such thinking. More is involved. Educators and legislators must look at the multiple facets of class-size issuesand remember that data come in many forms.

My story represents just one person's experience, but research supports the notion that smaller class size encourages teaching practices that promote great variety in student groupings and learning strategies. This is true, especially, when districts provide teachers with the time to think and plan together.

As esprit de corps grows within a community of learners guided by high expectations, academic progress follows. Effective classes help students feel that they make important contributions, and that their teachers and fellow students listen to them.

Small classes can do just that. I hope that they are here to stay—this time.

Greta Nagel is an associate professor of education and the coordinator of alternative certification at California State University-Long Beach. She is the author of the forthcoming book Effective Grouping for Literacy Instruction.

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 28, 31

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as The Class-Size Pendulum
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