MYTH #1: REDUCED CLASS SIZE IMPROVES STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
Book: The Seven Deadly Sins of the K-12 Education System: Costly and Ineffective Programs and Strategies
By: Philip S. Cicero, Ed.D.
CHAPTER 1 (from the above book)
MYTH #1: REDUCED CLASS SIZE IMPROVES STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT
Decades ago it was not uncommon to see 40 or more students in a classroom. In fact, the classrooms I was in during my elementary school years of the 1950s and 60s were typically around the average of 50 students. In classes of that size, my teachers were more like trained drill sergeants, and the students responded like good warriors. And that's the way it had to be.
For students and teachers alike, it was an era when schools mirrored the values and belief of society. Law and order was the objective. The baby boomer generation, now readying for retirement, can probably recall sitting erect at their desks, books open and eyes looking straight ahead. The five rows of students, usually a minimum of eight to 10 students per row, were placed one behind each other straighter than a clothesline. Visitors to the room were usually greeted with students standing and singing in unison a very often off key "welcome." This was considered a clear sign of respect and unquestionable acceptance of adult authority. When students occasionally stepped out of line and couldn't follow the classroom rules, there were only a few, but potent, consequences available to the teacher. Students knew and feared those consequences, which included corporal punishment and calling mom at home. Both were equally feared. Sending students to the principal's office – as is the case today - was rarely needed. The teacher was clearly in charge, and the students knew this.
But times have changed and so have the consequences which were once available to the teacher. Corporal punishment has now been thankfully banned in most states (There are 20 states which still allow corporal punishment. A complete list of those states can be found in Appendix A.), and new family structures have evolved which no longer resemble the traditional family model of the 1950s. Mom is now probably a single mom working more than one job just to provide food, clothes and shelter for her family. Calls from school personnel will either go unanswered or picked up by an overwhelmed grandparent.
As society's values changed during the cultural revolution of the 1960s so did the students. There was no way of separating the effects of a changing society and its trickled down influence on students and learning in the classroom. Student individuality was now encouraged and respect for authority was no longer automatic. In fact, questioning authority became more acceptable than acquiescing to it. Fear of consequences was no longer considered an appropriate way to motivate students.
As federal laws changed during the post 1960s era to recognize and protect the rights of individuals, so were rights of students getting similar attention. The 1970s had a significant role in changing the student composition of the classroom. Public Law 94-142, 1975 (later changed to the Individual with Disabilities Education Act – IDEA, reauthorized 2004) ushered in a new era of civil rights for students. Students with disabilities were no longer denied access to the same educational opportunities available to their non-handicapped peers. This new legislation resulted in classrooms literally opening their doors to special needs students. Teachers, not formally trained to work with these students, were now asked to deliver the appropriate and specialized instruction required for their education. A daunting and overwhelming task for those teachers.
The start of 1980s, through the turn of the century, brought a new focus and added demands on classroom teachers. This was primarily the result of a federal initiative and subsequent legislation. A Nation at Risk (a 1983 federal report outlining a failing educational system), No Child Left Behind (2002) and Race to the Top (2009) all contributed to a national reform movement which emphasized standards and instruction, and an accountability system driven by annual students' assessments. More demands on the teacher.
Today's classroom mirrors the diversity of the nation's population and values of today's society. The classroom today is no longer "melting pot," where students come together as one unit. Rather, students are encouraged to maintain their individual and cultural identity which often comes at the expense of group unity observed in classrooms from earlier decades. But now the potential for conflicting values and beliefs of the various sub groups adds to both the management and instructional demands of today's classroom.
As Jackson noted so well in Life in Classrooms (2000), "Anyone who has ever taught knows that the classroom is a busy place, even though it may not always appear so to the casual visitor." Jackson then continues by identifying some of the many non-instructional responsibilities of today's classroom teacher including supply sergeant, timekeeper, and person responsible for delegating those coveted students' tasks such as safety patrol officer, technology helper and many more that we can all probably recall from our elementary school years.
So it becomes fairly clear on how we arrived at the classroom size reduction initiative. The common sense panacea to the intense instructional, managerial and cultural demands of the classroom was simply to reduce the number of students in it. While arguably a rational approach, it would not ultimately be supported by research. Yet absent such evidence of its efficacy and misguided by a visceral reaction to it as a solution, class size reduction strategies not only prevail today, but continue to be financially supported by taxpayers and all levels of government. This is at a time when financial resources are at a premium, and when those limited resources would be better spent on practices supported by evidence.
DEBUNKING THE CLASS SIZE REDUCTION MYTH – THE RESEARCH
Beginning over a decade ago, our federal government began providing financial support to states to reduce class size. By 2010, all but 15 states - Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Alaska, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut - had laws limiting the number of students included in general education classrooms (Education Week 2013). So many of us have come to enjoy and expect low class sizes, particularly at the elementary level.
Prompted by a slow economy and public demands for controlled spending, school districts will be hard-pressed to find ongoing and significant savings as they craft future school budgets. Holding the line on contract salaries, increasing employee health contributions, eliminating before and after school programs have all been tried and, while still effective, have generally run their course.
Increasing class-size should be considered an option. But it will almost certainly be strongly opposed by parent and teacher groups.
In my state of New York, the New York State Education Department (2010) listed the average class size in 2010 for grades K-6 as 22.4. These class averages are considerably below the national estimated average of 25 students (Sparks 2010). (For a sampling of class size averages across the states and from around the world, see Appendix B).
But try suggesting that public school class sizes be raised -- even by just a few students -- and see what happens: Parents and teachers both will likely rush to school board meetings, loudly protesting the unthinkable. This is unfortunate because increasing class size can be a way to effectively economize without compromising educational quality. Chingos (2013) noted, for example, that results from a survey reported in Education Next and Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance reported that 48% of the parents preferred reducing class size by three students rather than giving teachers a $10,000 raise. Teachers, on the other hand, were relatively split when identifying their preferences. Forty seven percent preferred the reduction of class size by three students, while 42% preferred the increase in salary over the reduction in class size. These results suggest that while parents hold steadfast on their preference for class size reductions, teachers may be more willing to increase class size by a few students in order to avoid reductions in salary and benefits. For teachers and their union leaders this latter perspective may be indicative of a new reality for them with regard to economic concerns and school budgetary cuts.
Yet the class size perception is (and not necessarily the reality) that student achievement will improve when class size is low, and that adding more kids to each classroom comes at the expense of learning. But our knee-jerk opposition to adding even a few students to current class size levels is more of an emotional response than a fact-based one.
Since 1970 the pupil-teacher ratio in public schools has fallen by about 30 percent. Eric Hanushek (1999), a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, described how the perception of class size effects differs from the reality. "Yet the surprising fact is that the enormous amount of research dedicated to class size has failed to make a convincing case that reducing class size is likely to improve overall student performance (pp. 131-132)."
Findings challenging the efficacy of low class size were recently posted on the website of a regional New York newspaper. Readers responded to the content by writing their comments online. The majority of the respondents dismissed the findings believing that increasing class size is detrimental to learning. Respondents questioned the financial motivation behind increasing class size and suggested that teachers' salaries be reduced to maintain current low class size averages. How would teachers be able to give individual attention in a classroom with more students, and how would they be able to behaviorally manage the students were examples of other comments listed. But all of this – improving instruction, and cost effectiveness - can all be realized even when class size is increased. So it's now time to challenge the low class size myth.
Defenders of low class size often cite data from Tennessee's Project STAR (1985) study, which studied student achievement in grades K-3 over four years in the 1980s. While the efficacy of those results has been challenged, the study concluded that significant academic gains were made when classes consisted of 13 to 17 students. Even the high end of that range is well below the national class size average
The data don't support any conclusions about class sizes above 17 -- say, whether New York's 22 is better than the national 25. Achieving the kind of "low class sizes" that have shown benefits would mean school boards would have to reduce classes to those numbers, at a prohibitive cost. Reducing class size by one-third, from 24 students to 16 students, requires hiring 50 percent more teachers. Even if it was feasible, districts would be hard pressed to find the needed space in already overcrowded schools to accommodate the additional classrooms. There is even the risk of hiring less than effective teachers to meet the staffing demands needed in those classrooms. This would be ironic since the potential for improving student achievement in class size reduction classrooms could easily be negated because of an ineffective teacher. In a study investigating California's billion-dollar class-size-reduction program on student achievement (2009), the results showed that smaller classes raised mathematics and reading achievement, but they also showed that the increase in the share of teachers with neither prior experience nor full certification diminshed the benefits of smaller classes.
The federal government provided $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion per year from 1999 to 2001 for reducing class size in grades K–3 alone (Chingos, 2011). Florida best demonstrates the staggering costs associated with reducing class size. From its implementation date of 2003-4 through 2010-2011, the Florida Legislature appropriated more than $21.6 billion in expenses to implement class size reductions. Yet, a Harvard study, conducted by Matthew M. Chingos (2010) a research fellow at Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance, concluded that Florida's 2002 constitutional class size reduction amendment had no discernible impact upon student achievement. The study strongly suggested that states' monies restricted for funding class-size reduction mandates are not a productive use of educational resources. This perspective was further supported in an article written by Petrilli and Roza (2011). The authors recommend that state policy makers should remove expensive human policy mandates which have little return on costly educational investments - such as class size reduction programs - and allow schools and school districts greater flexibility in targeting programs that work.
So it's not necessarily about how many kids are in the room or how much is spent on reducing class size, but rather about the person leading instruction. The most important variable in education is the effectiveness of the teacher. Wadi Haddad (1978), in summarizing his review of class size studies for the World Bank, wrote, "An increase in class size does not necessarily lead to a decrease in level of academic achievement. Likewise a decrease in class size does not guarantee an improvement. . . . More important is what the teacher does (p. 14)." And earlier researchers agreed. Ryan and Greenberg's (1975) in their review of class size research indicated that most studies in this area failed to consider or control for the most important variable, and that is the quality of the teaching.
Support for this perspective was revealed in the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup annual poll (Bushman and Lopez, 2011). When given a choice, three out of four Americans surveyed indicated that they would prefer larger classes with more effective teachers than smaller classes with less effective teachers. A good teacher in a class of 21 students is still a good teacher in a class of 25. Conversely, an ineffective teacher in a class of 25 isn't miraculously becoming an effective teacher just by reducing class size to 21 or even lower. As recently reported in an Education Week update (2011), "Researchers agree that shrinking the number of students in a class does not automatically translate into better learning."
Given the excessive costs associated with low class size, - particularly at the 16-18 range – along with recent findings, and taxpayers concerns, it is now time to consider more cost effective instructional approaches to the popular class size reduction model. Investment in professional development activities can assist teachers by providing them with effective student centered strategies for teaching and managing classrooms when class size is increased.
ALTERNATIVES TO CLASS SIZE REDUCTIONS
To teach in a class with additional students from diverse background and bringing with them a wide range of academic abilities, the demands on the classroom teacher become significant. Teachers must bring an instructional toolbox filled with multiple instructional strategies, which when used correctly will meet the needs of all the students in the classroom. Examples of such strategies abound: student/peer teaching, small group instruction, homework/classroom flipping, cooperative learning, learning centers, project based learning and many others represent alternatives to the traditional teacher directed method of instruction such as lecture. In an instructional method directly opposite from the lecture method is constructivist teaching. Constructivist teachers (Hackmann, 2004) use these alternative strategies to facilitate instruction rather than direct it by mentoring, coaching and interacting with the students and by providing them with ongoing feedback in aiding them to find their own answers to questions posed by the teacher. While the teacher's role changes in the instructional approach, so does the role of the students. Students must now accept a greater responsibility for their own learning and behavior by being actively engaged in relevant and challenging activities. In other words, students learn by building on prior knowledge, reflect on it and then construct new meaning on their own. The paradigm shift from direct instruction to student centered instruction is a critical one because it allows the teacher to work with larger classes while having the flexibility to provide 1:1 instruction to those who need it when they need it. Not every student needs the same amount time, at the same time and on the same day from the teacher. It is fair to treat students differently.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Since the emerging consensus is that teacher effectiveness is the single most important determinant of student achievement – and not class size - then policies affecting teacher preparation, recruitment, retention and compensation must be reviewed.
· Schools of education must better prepare prospective teachers to work effectively with a variety of students in larger classes.
· Professional development for current teachers must introduce to them research based practices identifying effective strategies for working with all students.
· Prospective teachers and current teachers must also be made aware of class size research showing them the "reality gap" between what some believe about class size versus the actual impact it has on improving student achievement.
· Since much will be demanded of the teacher, school officials are urged to review existing and outdated compensation policies. Linking teacher's effectiveness – based on reaching and improving achievement levels for all students - to differentiated compensation is long overdue.
· Similarly, it is also time to eliminate or change seniority laws where states mandate that the last hired be the first one out (LIFO), regardless of the effectiveness level (see Chapter 3 for more on this topic of seniority). We need effective teachers in the classroom, and not necessarily just senior teachers.
· And it's imperative that proposals to increase class size, along with measures to assess teachers' effectiveness, go hand in hand with the creation of a teacher evaluation system that truly recognizes effectiveness.
· Local school officials, particularly in those states where there are class size reduction mandates, need to consolidate their efforts in lobbying state officials to amend or eliminate policies that tie their hands in bringing and implementing cost effective and proven educational programs to their districts.
· Local school officials may want to consider a teacher compensation structure that recognizes the added demands of teaching a large class of diverse students. Dollars for this initiative can be found as dollars from failed initiatives are redirected to where they are needed the most and where they will be most effective (see Chapter 9 for more information).
· In the meantime, school officials should review their policies and teacher contracts to assure that language limiting class size is not included in any of them.
Boards of education, policy makers, administrators, teachers and educators in general must be willing to make the difficult decisions, debunk this myth and set a visionary agenda that will result in meaningful, responsible and long-term cost reductions, while maintaining -- and even improving – education. The biggest push back will probably come from local, state and national teachers' unions where the potential of losing their dues paying members to layoffs becomes a reality. However, if unions want to show that they are more concerned about children than the adults than this should be an easy choice for them to make.
With shrinking revenues and resources at all levels of government, questionable initiatives such as class size reduction efforts should be suspended. Money saved here could be better spent for training and developing effective teachers, developing skills to work with all students, with teachers utilizing multiple instructional strategies, regardless of how many are in their classrooms.
A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education by The National Commission on Excellence in Education, April 1983.
Bushaw, William J., and Lopez, Shane J. 2011. Betting On Teachers. The 43rd. Annual Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of Public's Attitudes Toward Public Schools. Phi Delta Kappan, vol 93, no. 1, 8-26
Chingos, Matthew M. (2013). Class Size Tradeoffs in the Court of Public Opinion. The Brown Center Chalkboard.
Chingos, Matthew M. 2011. The False Promise of Class Size Reduction. Center for American Progress.
Chingos, Matthew M. 2010. The Impact of a Universal Class Size Reduction Policy: Evidence from Florida's Statewide Mandate. Program on Education Policy and Governance, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard University.
Education Week (2011). Class Size Updated. www.edweek.org
Education Week (2013). Setting Class Size Limits. www.edweek.org.
Hackmann, Donald G. 2004. Constructivism and Block Scheduling. Phi Delta Kappan, vol 85, no. 9, 697-702
Haddad, Wadi D. 1978. Educational Effects of Class Size. World Bank Staff Working Paper No. 280. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. ED179003
Hanushek, Eric A. 1999. "The Evidence on Class Size." In Susan E. Mayer and Paul E. Peterson, ed., Earning & Learning: How Schools Matter. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – Reauthorized 2004. United States Department of Education, Parts 300, 301 of Code of Federal Regulations.
Jackson, Philip W. 1968. Life in the classrooms. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
New York State Education Department (website: www.nysed.edu). 2010. Information, Reporting and Technology Services: Average class size for selected assignment codes.
No Child Left Behind Act, Public Law 1070110, 107th Congress, 2001 (signed into law by President Bush, 2002).
Petrilli, M. J., Roza, M. (2011). Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policymakers. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Institute. www.edexcellence.net
Race to the Top. (2009). The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Public Law 111-5.
Ryan, D.W., and Greenfield, T.B. (1975). The Class Size Question: Development of Research Studies Related to the Effects of Class Size, Pupil/Adult, and Pupil Teacher Ratios. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.
Sparks, S.D. (2010). Class Sizes Show Signs of Growing. Education Week, November
Tennessee's Project STAR (1985-1989). The effect of reducing class size on student performance, Tennessee Legislature, signed by the Governor 1985.