Does class size really matter in educating learners?

Academic performance is important, but it is not the only measure of student success. In the area of student engagement, findings consistently show the value of small classes. Students talk and participate more in smaller classes. They are much more likely to interact with the teacher rather than listen passively during class. Not surprisingly, students describe themselves as having better relationships with their teachers in smaller classes and evaluate both these classes and their teachers more positively than do their peers in larger classes. Students display less disruptive behavior in small classes, and teachers spend less time on discipline, leaving more time for instruction. Specifically, teachers in smaller classes can diagnose and track student learning and differentiate instruction in response to student needs. In smaller classes students spend less time off-task or disengaged from the work of the class, and they have greater access to technology. Research also suggests that smaller class sizes can help students develop greater ability to adapt to intellectual and educational challenges (Bedard & Kuhn, 2006; Dee & West, 2011; Fleming, Toutant, & Raptis, 2002).

It should not take a genius to understand that a smaller class size, especially at the middle and high school level, is the most effective setting to make sure student achievement. Why do you think private charter schools and public charters schools work with smaller class sizes? Why should they be the only teachers provided with the opportunity to work in a highly effective classroom setting? Why should they be given the golden ticket, while we – public school teachers – are left begging for the same opportunity? Creating larger class sizes is the wrong approach, and creates a recipe for disaster.

Some teachers do really well with large class sizes….but don’t do well with small ones. This happens because they can draw in a large group of students and create an intimate setting much like a great speaker can draw in a large audience. Other teachers have the complete opposite talent. They do a spectacular job with a small class size because they need to make personal connections with every child in their class.

It depends on the teacher, the group of students, the subject being taught and the expectations in the classroom. There is no one size fits all answer to class size.

For many teachers, having large class sizes often means that teachers cannot do inquiry-based learning or take risks to include more innovation in their classrooms. Large class sizes lead to stress and high anxiety. Most teachers clearly cannot do as much with large classes that they could do with small ones…but what should be considered a large class size?

According to the latest federal data based on teacher surveys, the average class size is 24 in the state’s elementary schools and 30 in secondary schools.

But despite more than four decades of research, the effects of this simple idea about how to raise student achievement have been hard to isolate and measure, leading to academic squabbles over its value.

Researchers generally agree that lower class sizes, at least in the earliest grades, are linked to positive educational benefits such as better test scores, fewer dropouts and higher graduation rates, especially for disadvantaged children.In recent years, researchers have been trying to figure out why smaller class size works, how it works and who benefits most.

Nailing those questions would help educators, policymakers and the public understand what else they need to do besides just shrinking classes to get the biggest bang for the buck.

The studies, based on classroom observations and interviews, have revealed some surprising insights:

  • The most obvious explanation for why reducing class size works  that teachers give students better, more-tailored instruction in smaller classes probably isn’t the reason why achievement goes up. Teachers for the most part don’t change their practices automatically when their classes have fewer students.
  • Students behave better and pay more attention in smaller groups, and this may account at least initially for the gains. For example, it’s harder for a couple of troublemakers in the back of the room to derail the class when they can’t hide in a crowd.
  • Reducing class sizes can have the potential to make a big difference for students only if teachers get the training and administrative support to take advantage of the situation by changing how they teach and how they interact with parents.

By Vilma Daluson

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