Federal Dateline

On Size Debate, Head and Heart Are of One Mind

by KARI ARFSTROM

Smaller is better.


Even though your heart and brain always knew this, now a longitudinal study buttresses your desire for smaller class sizes, especially in the formative grades.

Owing to the passage of legislation in more than 20 states requiring smaller class sizes in early elementary grades and President Clinton’s successful initiative for 100,000 new teachers last year, Congress and educational researchers are once again debating the merits of something professional educators intuitively have known to be valuable.

Superintendents and principals get a bad rap in some of the trade press for supposedly minimizing the significance of smaller class size. If you access Education Week’s class size issues Web page, this is what you find: "Administrators sometimes play down the benefits of reducing the number of students in a classroom, arguing that ‘research has not conclusively shown that small classes are linked to improved student learning’ or that ‘learning gains only show up when classes get down to 15 kids.’"

Now that we have the proof, the next time a reporter calls to ask what you think of reducing class size, answer with your heart, not on the basis of your building’s present capacity.

New Support
The latest support for smaller classes comes from Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio), which tracked nearly 12,000 students in dozens of school districts in Tennessee who participated in a statewide experiment from 1985 to 1990. The K-3 elementary classrooms in this study were divided into three constructs: regular class size, regular class size with a full-time teacher’s aide and small class size (13 to 17 students). The students from these constructs then were followed through their senior year of high school.

Not only did the students attending the smaller classes outperform their peers on reading and math tests in those early grades, but more importantly they retained this lead through high school. These students remained six to 13 months ahead of their peers throughout their K-12 education.

Black students and inner-city students tended to perform the best in this study, but former STAR students were more likely to complete honors English and advanced math courses, graduate on time, receive an honors diploma and graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes.

While smaller class size seems to result in more successful students, education researcher Gerald Bracey notes that flexibility needs to accompany any class size reduction initiative. In his stinging rebuff of a shallow view of small class size by University of Rochester’s Eric Hanushek, Bracey acknowledges that the actual number of students in a class should not be a bright line in the sand nor should non- or emergency-credentialed teachers be employed at the expense of our students, especially in early elementary grades where learning the basics is essential. Instead, local districts should determine what is best for class size reduction at each site.

Over the next 10 years, demographers predict that the nation’s current enrollment of 51.7 million public and private school students will explode by at least 3 million additional students. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the nation will need 6,600 more schools, nearly 200,000 additional teachers and billions of extra dollars in education spending. Even with these daunting numbers, we need to keep our eye on the smaller is better prize.

Positive Outcomes
Small schools also have a long track record of success. In a review of small school research for the ERIC Clearinghouse of Rural Education and Small Schools, Mary Anne Raywid notes that small schools contribute to a better environment for learning, more rapid progression toward graduation, a smaller dropout rate and better-behaved students. Small schools have more cooperative families and better-motivated students who are involved in more extracurricular activities.

As educational researcher Kathleen Cotton summed it up, "A large body of research in the affective and social realms overwhelmingly affirms the superiority of small schools."

Social problems are greatly diminished in smaller schools, as well. When schools with 1,000 or more students are compared to schools with fewer than 300 students, these behavior patterns emerge. In the larger schools, physical conflicts among students is 238 percent higher, robbery and theft is 600 percent higher, drug use is 362 percent higher and verbal abuse of teachers is 371 percent higher, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While we are in an age of bigger is better for cars, houses and stock portfolios, we need to rethink our stance on classrooms and schools. The proof is in the research, and our heads and hearts know it too.

Kari Arfstrom is director of special projects in the department of public affairs at AASA.