Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Size Matters

Class size seems to be a constant point of controversy for education, although it should be a no-brainer. Simply put, smaller classes are better for students than larger ones. A study I read recently reported that 13-17 students constituted a small class and a class of 22-25 children is considered a large one . The large number caused me to laugh hysterically, as the maximum class size preferred by the administration in Philadelphia is 32. It has been 32 for decades, which is actually decreased from the 33 students packed into the classrooms when I began teaching. That decrease of 1 student per class was a hard-fought issue in one of our contract negotiations years ago, a reluctant concession on the part of the school district. One fewer student will not make much difference, though.

Without doing any studies or having any personal experience, I could unequivocally say that smaller class sizes are better for academic achievement without leaving my place behind the computer. All I’d have to do is examine the brochures of the private schools in the area.

Let’s examine average class sizes of some private schools in the Philadelphia area:

Episcopal Academy – 15

St. Joseph’s Prep – 25

Friends Select – 12 to 20, with two teachers in larger classes

George School – 15

Westtown School – 15

Villa Maria Academy – 15

Sacred Heart Academy – 16

Malvern Prep – 9 to 13

Baldwin Academy – 14

St. Basil’s Academy – 18

Friends Central – 13

Agnes Irwin School – 14 to 17

The Haverford School – 17

The Hill School – 12 to 14

The Phelps School – 7 (serves both IEP and underachieving students)

Miquon School – 20 to 24 with two fulltime teachers in each class

Shipley School– 12

Springside School – 15

Germantown Academy – 15

I think I’ve made my point.  The private schools in the Philadelphia area that advertise great success and almost 100% college admission rates have determined that small class sizes matter, and use those statistics in their brochures as selling points for prospective students. So why are we even entertaining the thought that high-poverty, disadvantaged students can easily reach academic success in classes of 32 and beyond?


It is incredulous to make class size a bargaining point in the teachers’ contract when it’s obviously one way to increase the educational success of students. I often wonder if the members of the School Reform Commission, who are making these decisions, send their children to private or public schools. I think it should be a requirement of a sitting board member to have sent their children to public schools, so they can be personally affected by some of their asinine decisions,  thereby creating a lesser chance of foolish rules and regulations.

A report published February 2014 by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, calls on the faulty study and faulty conclusions of Malcolm Gladwell and Eric Hanushek in examining 59 case studies of class size done in 1987 and 1995. Those studies found no significant difference in the achievement of students in large or small classes. There were several flaws in this study, one in the size of the data sets (too small), another in not taking into account other causes for the results (it wasn’t random), and faulty conclusions. Mr. Gladwell subsequently wrote a book on the subject, titled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, which is the source frequently cited by class-size-deniers. Many experts call his “research” into account, questioning its validity. You can read an article below about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Pseudo-Profundity.”

The study cited by Schanzenbach was one of many that have refuted Gladwell’s conclusions. Called STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), it was a real experiment, totally random in assignment of students and teachers to smaller classes and was done over the span of four years from Kindergarten to third grade. There were 11,500 students, 1,300 teachers and 79 elementary schools involved in this study in Tennessee from 1985 to 1989.  Conclusions from this better-designed study, show that students in classes of 13-17 scored 5 percentage points more on standardized tests in math and reading than students in classes of 22 to 25. Looking at the scores from a black-white achievement gap or an economic achievement gap showed an even greater advantage to being in a smaller class.   The results were unequivocal.

On a more personal note, my first two years in the school district were spent teaching pre-Kindergarten, with a maximum class size of 20. Throughout the year, I noticed that any day where 16 children or less were present, worked like a charm. It didn’t even matter which children were present, the better behaved or the behaviorally challenged.  A full class of 20 always posed a challenge to reach everyone. In Kindergarten, the same phenomenon was observed with an ideal number present of 20 to 22, where 30 was the maximum allowed.

In fifth grade, the max was 32 and the ideal, depending on the combination of kids was 16 to 24. The success of the class depended on the behavior problems that were assigned to the class, not the number of kids with IEPs. It just makes sense that a smaller class size gives you the freedom to get to know each child personally and understand what thinking processes you need to stimulate in order for him/her to learn well. It’s easier to foster a sense of community in a smaller class, so students will not be afraid to speak their mind or be made to feel stupid. The space in the class is also a consideration. With a smaller class, there’s more room to be flexible in your room arrangement, and you’re not sitting practically on top of one another. Smaller class sizes just make way more sense than larger ones.

The school district, at its cost-cutting best, stacked the classes to the maximum of 32 this year, creating over 100 mixed-grade classrooms. You can imagine the current class configuration is not going to be conducive to higher test scores. If 22 to 25 is considered a large class, I suppose Philadelphia has a XXXL size as its norm. No wonder we’re having such a tough time.

Bigger is not always better. Size matters.

Does Class Size Matter? - Schanzenbach article


Still learning!

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