How big is too big?
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The Philadelphia school district has been struggling to keep classes in grades 1 to 3 from growing from 30 to 37 students this fall. High school classes have been in danger of topping 40 students, and the city doesn’t suffer this problem alone. Sixty-four percent of Pennsylvania districts have increased class sizes since the 2010-11 school year, according to an annual survey from the PA Association of School Administrators and the PA Association of School Business Officials.
Delaware state law restricts Kindergarten through 3rd-grade classes to no more than 22 students, but more than three-quarters of public schools in the state have requested and received waivers from this requirement. New Jersey has a 21-student class-size limit for Kindergarten through 3rd grade in high-poverty districts, but the mandate is enforced only for Kindergarten.
Tighter budgets — caused by reduced levels of state and federal funding, a still-sputtering economy, rising pension and special education costs, and funds funneled away from traditional public schools toward charter schools — have resulted in teacher layoffs and larger class sizes all across the Delaware Valley.
Does class size matter?
When class size increases, many parents worry that teachers will spend more time managing behavior than instructing, and children won’t get the attention necessary for success. “Academically, struggling students can’t get the help they need when classes get too large,” says Jacquelyn Wilson, EdD, assistant professor of education at the University of Delaware. “Brighter children can’t get enrichment. And it’s harder to establish a culture of personalization.”
The most cited and influential American class-size study, the Tennessee Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project, found that smaller classes in the early grades led to higher academic achievement, particularly among low-income African American students. Follow-up studies found that kids in smaller elementary classes maintained higher GPAs in high school and were more likely to graduate and pursue a college degree. Subsequent studies found similar results, particularly with less-advantaged children.
Critics, however, contend that other studies have not replicated these outcomes, and that quality teachers are more effective than class-size reduction in raising achievement levels. They also argue that the benefits of smaller classes aren’t substantial enough to justify the expense.
“For real benefit, class size has to be very small, like under 15 children,” says Laura Waters, a New Jersey school board member and education blogger. “A huge drop like that isn’t realistic.”
Many experts, including those at the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), recommend 15 students as the optimal class size for Kindergarten and 1st grade, and 18 students for 2nd through 5th grade. Little research has been done on class size in the higher grades, but PSEA president Michael Crossey says it would vary by the type of class. Kids in a feedback-driven English composition class or a hands-on auto-mechanics course, say, would benefit more from a smaller size than would those in a social studies lecture.