How Much Does Class Size Affect Your Child's Learning?

Do students in large classes perform just as well as students in smaller ones? Several studies suggest that smaller class sizes result in higher achievement levels. But is it only the size of the class or are other variables at play?

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class size debate

Size Matters

Teachers unions advocate it. Parents prefer it. And some state legislators, most recently those in Wyoming, even mandate it. But does class size really matter?

Some say no, that things like teacher quality and curriculum are far more important to student success than the number of kids in the class. In some cases, educators place class size fourth or even lower on a list of elements affecting student achievement.

Yet numerous studies clearly show the benefits of smaller class size. Higher grades, lower dropout rates, good behavior and even better health have all been linked to smaller classes.

In what is considered one of the most credible studies on the subject, the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study conducted in the 1980s found that reducing class size by 32% (seven students from a class of 22) led to achievement levels equal to three additional months of instruction.

Thinking Small

The thinking behind small class size is sensible: less students means teachers can devote more time on an individual basis, leading to improved learning. But this is not necessarily true across the board.

For instance, the largest academic gains are seen in lower grades (generally K-3) or when class sizes are reduced to 20 students or less. But with many schools facing overcrowding issues and teacher layoffs, are classes of less than 20 students possible? Realistically, no.

Maintaining smaller classes requires more teachers; in this time of budget cuts and reduced funding, hiring teachers is not an option for most schools.

Students Speak Out

Perhaps the most important voices to be heard in class size arguments are those who are undoubtedly most affected: students themselves.

In March 2011, the Education section of The New York Times asked 'Does Class Size Matter?' The online article invited students to give their thoughts and personal experiences about smaller versus larger class sizes.

The majority of the nearly 160 responses indicated that students felt 'more comfortable' in smaller classes, that fewer students led to more personalized learning, that smaller classes were more 'fun' and that it helped them to 'learn better.'

Unfortunately, smaller classes mean larger budgets, and in the current economy that is not likely to happen. Thus, smaller classes do not appear to be the norm - even if the law demands it.

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