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Increasing Class Size:

Sound and Cost Effective   



Try suggesting that public school class sizes be raised even by just a few students and see what happens. Parents and teachers likely will rush to the next school board meeting, loudly protesting the unthinkable.

This is unfortunate because increasing class size can be a way to effectively economize without compromising educational quality.

More than a decade ago, our federal government began providing financial support to states to reduce class size. By 2010, all but 15 states had laws limiting the number of students in general education classrooms. In New York, where I worked as a superintendent for 11 years, the state education department lists average class size at 22.4 for grades K-6, considerably below the national average of 25.

Contrary Viewpoints
The perception is that student achievement will improve when class size is low and that adding more children to each classroom will impair learning. But our knee-jerk opposition to adding even a few students to current classes is more emotional than fact-based.

Findings challenging the efficacy of low class size recently were posted on the website of a regional New York newspaper. The majority of the online commenters dismissed the findings, claiming increasing class size is detrimental to learning. Respondents questioned the financial motivation behind increases and suggested teachers’ salaries be reduced to maintain current low class-size averages. They expressed concern about teachers’ ability to offer individual attention and manage student behavior in larger classes.

It’s time to challenge the myth that smaller classes are superior.

Prompted by a slow economy, school districts will be hard-pressed to find ongoing and significant savings as they craft their school budgets. Holding the line on contract salaries and increasing employee health contributions are two solutions that, while still effective, have generally run their course. Increasing class size should be considered, even though it will almost certainly face strong opposition from parent and teacher groups.

Supporters of low class size often cite data from Tennessee’s Project STAR study, begun in 1985, which examined student achievement in grades K-3 over four years. While the efficacy of its results has been challenged, the study concluded that significant academic gains were made when classes consisted of 13 to 17 students. Even the upper end of that range is well below the national class-size average.

But the study says nothing about class sizes above 17, and achieving these kinds of small classes would come at a prohibitive cost. Reducing class size by one-third, from 24 students to 16 students, requires hiring 50 percent more teachers.

Hefty Investment
Florida best demonstrates the staggering costs associated with reducing class size. Between 2003 and 2011, the Florida legislature appropriated more than $21.6 billion to implement class-size reductions. A 2010 Harvard study concluded these efforts had no discernible impact on student achievement.

There are findings that suggest success is not necessarily about how many kids are in the room so much as the person leading instruction. The most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup annual poll found that, when given a choice, three out of four Americans surveyed indicated they would prefer larger classes with more-effective teachers than smaller classes with less-effective teachers. An effective teacher in a classroom with 21 students is still effective with 25.

Thus, a more cost-effective approach than the class-size-reduction model would be investment in professional development activities that provide teachers with student-centered strategies for instructing and managing larger classes.

Examples of such strategies abound. Computer-assisted instruction, student/peer teaching, small-group instruction, cooperative learning and project-based learning are all creative alternatives to the traditional     teacher-directed method of instruction.

The paradigm shift from direct instruction to student-centered instruction allows a teacher to work with larger classes while having the flexibility to offer one-to-one attention to those who need it when they need it. Not every student needs the same amount of time from the teacher. It is fair to treat students differently.

Limits Removed
Since the emerging consensus is that teacher effectiveness is the single, most important determinant of student achievement, policies affecting preservice training, teacher recruitment, and retention and compensation must all be reviewed. It also is time to eliminate or change seniority laws where states mandate that the last hired be the first one out, regardless of ability. It’s imperative that proposals to increase class size go hand in hand with the creation of a teacher evaluation system that truly recognizes effectiveness.

In the meantime, school officials should review their policies and teacher contracts to ensure that language limiting class size is not included in them.

Boards of education must be willing to make the difficult decisions, debunk the myths and set a visionary agenda that will result in meaningful, responsible and long-term cost reductions, while maintaining and even improving education.

Philip Cicero, a retired superintendent, lives in Massapequa, N.Y.    E-mail: pc828@optonline.net


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