Want to start a debate at your next board meeting? Try arguing that smaller class sizes really aren't effective, despite the popular sentiment in favor of them. The debate on the benefits of smaller class size vs. the long-term costs and effects on the system continues to rage. Scholars and analysts have not reached consensus on whether the benefits are worth the costs, but a mountain of research suggests key positives and a few negatives.
Research suggests important benefits for children in smaller classes include greater in-depth coverage of subject matter, enhanced learning and stronger engagement, more personalized relationships with teachers, and safer schools with fewer discipline problems.
For young students in smaller classes with high-quality teachers, the advantages are clear, with poor and minority students making the greatest gains. WestEd researchers Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner recently reviewed and evaluated class size research and concluded that students who are in smaller classes in the early grades tend to do better academically than their peers in larger classes. This benefit becomes more noticeable the longer the students are in classes that have fewer than 20 children. (In Tennessee, the state with the class size reduction program of longest duration, smaller kindergarten classes had 13 to 17 students; during a five-year pilot program in Wisconsin, student advantage decreased when K-3 classes exceeded 15 students.)
Though class size reduction seems worthy of serious consideration, it should not be regarded as a panacea or used as a "stand-alone" reform. After California lowered class sizes in grades K-3, schools were faced with large classes in higher grades and shortages of teachers with proper credentials. Also in California, African-American students did not realize the dramatic gains seen among African-American students in Tennessee. Researchers concluded that class size reduction initiatives could have the unintended consequence of exacerbating racial and ethnic inequalities among students in urban schools already struggling to provide special services to student bodies characterized by poverty, overcrowding, diversity and language barriers.
Research suggests that reducing class size has the greatest potential to improve student achievement when district administrators do the following:
Integrate class size reduction with other school reforms.
Take into account direct and indirect costs; look for ways to reduce class size without damaging other essential resources.
Accurately assess the amount of classroom space and the required number and qualifications of teachers necessary.
Encourage state-level administrators to conduct trial class size reductions in low-income areas with large minority student populations before launching a large-scale initiative.
Provide teachers with professional development in the instructional and organizational strategies that work best in small classrooms.
Plan and budget for data management and program evaluation.
Research Corner is a monthly column presented by AEL, which conducts research on a variety of educational topics. This month's column on class size is based on the recent research of others as reported or synthesized in the following works:
Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner. What Research Says about Small Classes and Their Effects (Policy Perspectives series). San Francisco: WestEd, 2002. Available at http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/small_classes.pdf .
Wendy Schwartz. Class Size Reduction and Urban Students (ERIC Digest No. 182). New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, 2003. Available at http://eric-web.tc.columbia.edu