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Chat Wrap-Up: Class Size and Student Learning

March 06, 2007 6 min read
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On Feb. 21, class size—its impact on learning as well as what configurations work best—was the topic, with readers’ questions answered by Douglas N. Harris, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Nancy Flanagan, a 30-year teaching veteran who is now a full-time doctoral student in educational policy at Michigan State University. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Question: With all the effort to reduce class sizes, what about the students who benefit from having a quality teacher in a larger class? Lack of exposure to large-class education may be one reason many students who excel in K-12 grades are unable to learn in a college environment. The small-class environment is not realistic. And that is what quality students want: reality.

Read a full transcript of this chat.
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Flanagan: I think your assumption—that there are quality students who thrive in larger classes—needs some unpacking. One key issue in class size is (to borrow a cliche) that one size doesn’t fit all. Some subjects and developmental levels may well be more efficiently taught in large groups. Reading instruction in 1st grade, on the other hand, would be seriously and negatively impacted by larger class size—even for the most dedicated and attentive kids.

What about the distinct possibility that focused and accomplished teaching, in the very early years, will turn many kids from homes where learning is not a priority into what you are calling quality students?

I know some college students prefer large lectures, where information is absorbed, then tested, and that they feel this model is “real learning,” compared to smaller seminars involving discussion, evaluation, and argument. At all levels, smaller class sizes that put more of an onus on the individual learner do make people who prefer anonymity uncomfortable. Constructing knowledge in teams, however, is a 21st-century skill—something worth considering.

Question: While class size is of the utmost importance, student-teacher ratio also plays a large part. Having 30 students in a class, for example, is more acceptable when there are two or more teachers, as is done in a Montessori environment.

Harris: The results from Tennessee’s Project STAR suggest that having aides in the classroom is unimportant in terms of test scores, though almost every teacher I’ve ever spoken to disagrees.

It’s also important to consider whether it would be better to use the money that would go into hiring an aide to hire more teachers and reduce class size. If an aide is paid half of what a regular teacher is paid, then a school could use this approach to reduce class size by 25 percent or more. I’m not saying this is the right thing to do (especially with a Montessori model), but these are the types of trade-offs we have to bear in mind.

Question: Class size isn’t as big an issue as the quality of the teacher in the classroom. The better teacher will make 35 students to a class work. Is there any research tying together these two issues?

Flanagan: There’s plenty of research indicating that effective teaching is much more critical than class size. In fact, the Tennessee STAR study, considered one of the most trustworthy pieces of research on the benefits of lower class size, found that good teaching was more than twice as important as class size when examining measurable student learning.

I am hard-pressed to think of a research design, however, that will accurately measure other important factors that emerge when considering class size. How do we put a number on the value of personal attention, more chances to get feedback on your writing, or having three kids in your reading group instead of six? How do we measure the effect of custom-tailored, differentiated learning made possible by smaller numbers of students? Or even something as simple as more time for parent conferences? While it’s true that a top-notch teacher will adapt to almost any conditions, shouldn’t we consider reasonable class sizes an investment in children?

Question: Does class size really matter? I’ve had classes of 10, 18, 24, 28, 36, and 40, and I managed them all the same way, with the same results: high percentages passing state exams. Isn’t it all in the control?

Harris: Class size does seem to have a modest effect on the test-score average, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it matters in all cases. You might be especially good at handling disciplinary issues, or even providing differentiated instruction, in a large class setting, for example. But other teachers might only be effective in a small-class setting, and this could be why we see the modest effect on the average.

It sounds as if you may have been teaching students in different schools, so it also could be that your students in the small classes started off at lower levels than the students in the large-class settings, meaning that your small-class students actually made greater gains than you think. One of the challenges of identifying the class-size effect is separating the role of class size from the characteristics of students who tend to end up in small classes. It’s possible that if you accounted for this by looking at the test-score gains, then you’d see some effects.

Question: For teachers who have little hope of gaining significantly smaller classes, is trial and error the only way they can learn to manage their classes to enhance student leaning? How can more-effective professional development help teachers and students succeed in spite of classes of 25 to 35 students?

Flanagan: You almost answered your own question. Most teachers have little input into class size or flexible grouping of students to improve instruction (an issue in its own right). But I hate to see thoughtful building of a teaching practice referred to as “trial and error.” All worthy practitioners learn from experience, but that experience is greatly enhanced by ongoing professional learning, which gives teachers an intellectual framework to analyze their own practice.

A consistent theme in the class-size literature is that effective teaching trumps class size. When professional development provides positive intervention in practice, teachers do a better job of handling larger groups of kids. The key is job-embedded, just-in-time professional development, which is hardly the norm.

I’m also wondering if you haven’t posed a false dichotomy: Shouldn’t we be aiming, always, for optimum efficiency at reasonable cost?

Question: Asian schools, as in Japan and China, have class sizes generally well over 30 students to a room, yet class management does not appear to be a problem. What is the key, if any, to their success in working with large numbers of children?

Harris: It’s important to be careful when making international comparisons. The “best” education system in one country is probably not the best for another. In this case, part of the issue is that students in many high-scoring countries have cultural norms that lead them to defer to the authority of teachers, producing classrooms with fewer disruptions. So, in those countries, small classes aren’t as necessary for creating an orderly learning environment.

Question: What do you perceive as the answer to overcrowded classrooms, and where do we need to make changes as a society to enforce good learning habits no matter what the class size is?

Flanagan: I don’t think there’s a single answer to overcrowded classrooms. Class size is as much an economic as an instructional issue, so we will always be trying to balance the expense of lowering class sizes with other resource-allocation priorities. Is it worth the expense of lowering class sizes by one or two pupils per classroom, for example, if the consequence for the district is no new technology? Optimum class size is sometimes a judgment call.

The more critical part of your question, though, is your observation that society needs to take a greater interest in education, and encourage students to value the gift of free public schooling. You’re talking about changing hearts and minds (not to mention media and politics), but what could be a more important goal than promoting a better-educated nation?

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A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Class Size and Student Learning

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