Does Class Size Matter

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					Does Class Size

Linda Heidenrich

   Fall 2007
       My classroom sometimes reminds me of a sardines in a can where my students

and myself can barely navigate through the rows. At other times my classroom reminds

me of a Grand Canyon where all I can hear is echoes winding through the few students I

have in attendance. But, is student learning more productive in one environment or

another? Does class size really matter? A conversation with any teacher would tell you

that if you have fewer students in a class more time can be spent with each student, more

discussion and activities can occur, and the relationships built within the class are

stronger, all leading to increased learning.      Yet, does the research support this

experiential finding and do the costs of more classrooms and more qualified teachers

outweigh the benefits?

       According to the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers, there are four major

benefits to small class size: improved classroom atmosphere, lower noise level, better

relationships between students and fewer discipline problems (AFT, 2003).           Fewer

students led to the teacher being able to better know the needs of each student and have

more time per student, consequently allowing the student to be more engaged and less of

a behavior problem. However, the AFT recognizes some conditions must be met for

small class sizes to be most effective; classes need to remain 15-20 students, schools with

low-achieving and low-income students need to be targeted, there needs to be adequate

qualified teachers and classroom space (AFT, 2003). The primary study referenced to
support small class size is the Tennessee STAR Project conducted in the late 1980’s.

Students from 79 schools in 42 districts were randomly assigned to small classes (13-17

students), regular classes (20-25 students) and regular classes with an aide (20-25

students) in grades K-3, then distributed to regular class sizes in grade 4 and tested in

grade 5. Those students in small classes in grades K-3 were half a year ahead of their

regular class counterparts in math and reading even though they had not been in small

classes in fourth grade (Miller-Whitehead, 2002, p. 4). These effects were measurable

through the eighth grade. The interesting aspect of this study was the schools that chose

to participate were not representative of Tennessee’s elementary student population; the

participating schools tended to have high percentages of poor minority students (Miller-

Whitehead, 2002, p. 6). In 1999, researchers conducted further research to examine the

lasting effects of small class sizes in K-3 and reported the effects last through high

school. Students from small class sizes were more likely to graduate from high school on

schedule and less likely to drop out, more likely to have enrolled in honors class and

graduate in the top ten percent of their class, and more likely to take the SAT or ACT in

preparation for attending college (AFT, 2003).

       Other supporting research for reduced class size includes the SAGE Program in

Wisconsin, the Rouse Study in Milwaukee, and the Wenglinsky Study conducted by

Educational Testing Services researcher Harold Wenglinsky. Although each of these

studies examined different grade levels, ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds,

the conclusion was nearly identical: students in small class sizes outperform their large

class size counterparts in math and reading and the teachers of the SAGE study

emphasized an increased enthusiasm for teaching (AFT, 2003). Around the same time as
the SAGE study and shortly after the Wenglinsky study, California implemented their

class size reduction plan in grades K-3 (California Department of Education, 2007) and

later the Morgan-Hart Class Size Reduction Act allowed schools to have reduced class

sizes in 9th grade in English and one other course required for graduation, either math or

science. However, the legislation was passed six weeks before the start of the school

year, not mandatory, not enough funding was provided to the initiative, and serious issues

with overcrowding on certain campuses was not addressed, therefore, much smaller gains

in reading and math occurred.

     The need for class size reduction in science classes at the high school level has not

been explicitly discussed or researched, however several sources demonstrate the need

for decreased class size in a high school laboratory class. According to the Science Safety

Handbook for California Public Schools (1999), each student needs a fire code minimum

of 20 feet of space. Yet, the handbook explains according to California Code of

Regulations, Title 2, Section 1811(g)(2), state architects are required to design laboratory

classrooms for occupancy by 26 students in grades seven through twelve or 24 students in

grades nine through twelve. Therefore, according to the California Code, we are

supposed to have small class sizes to properly complete laboratory activities. Further

evidence to support small class sizes in a science laboratory class was presented in Texas

after completing a survey of secondary science teachers. When science teachers were

asked the greatest hazard in a science classroom, 55% of teachers responded with

overcrowding. The second greatest hazard was inadequate facilities at 13% (West,

2007).   The researchers also presented clear evidence demonstrating how accidents

increase in direct correlation to “elbow space” of students, room size and class size.
Specifically, at the high school level, accidents are 4.5 times more likely to occur if the

class size is over 24 compared to a class size of 21-24 students. Flinn Scientific, one of

the leading suppliers of supplies for the science classrooms explains the issue this way,

     “Many laboratory experiences require a high degree of student-teacher interaction.

     The fewer students there are in a laboratory, the greater the opportunity for students

     to ask questions and for teachers to clarify procedures and encourage the

     development of reasoning skills.” (Flinn Scientific Website, 2006)

The website continues to discuss how decreased interaction time with students often lead

to increased discipline problems which create further “unsafe” conditions within the

classrooms. Flinn suggests that teachers have weighed the benefits and risks of the

laboratory experience and have decided the laboratory experience is not worth the risk

with such large classes, therefore abolishing laboratory experiences in the classroom.

     On the other hand, class size reduction requires an increase in funding to increase

the number of available classrooms and available teachers. For example, the Class-Size

Reduction initiative passed in California increased funding to $650 per student in classes

with 20 students or less. This initiative also required 20,000 new teachers throughout the

state and the increased demand led certification requirements to be relaxed and caused

many unprepared or under-prepared teachers to enter the classroom (AFT, 2003). In

addition, many schools have to install portable classrooms to deal with student growth at

a cost of $40,000 to $60,000 per portable for a 20-year lease (EdSource Online, 1998).

Yet, do the costs of more classrooms and teacher salaries outweigh the benefits of
increased scores and graduation rates? Consider the following: the state of California

spends more than ten times as much on every youth inmate compared to the amount spent

on each K-12 student. California spent, in the 2006-2007 fiscal year, on average, $11,264

on each K-12 student and $145,000 on each youth inmate (CA Legislative Analyst’s

Office, 2006).   Using the information on Resource Center, an

average salary for a beginning teacher in California is about $35,000. Therefore, schools

could employ four new teachers for the cost of one youth inmate. If one student is

prevented from being a dropout and possibly becoming a youth inmate, the benefits

clearly outweigh the costs.

     The benefits of class size reduction can be attained without concern for the costs of

more teachers and classrooms. The solution on our campus is a movement toward small

learning communities and academies. This solution provides several of the benefits of

reduced class size while keeping classes of 30-35 students.       These benefits include

increased graduation rates with a large proportion of students pursuing post-secondary

education, decreased dropout rates and higher test scores. These small learning

communities have a specific focus, usually around a career choice, and provide students,

through mentoring, specialized staffing and instruction and internships a unique high

school experience. Academies began in Philadelphia in 1969 (Stern, 2001) but had

widespread integration into secondary schools in the 1980’s after the United States was

labeled a “Nation at Risk” of graduating illiterate, ill-prepared students (Cleary &

English, 2005). By 2000, California implemented more than 500 academies and “fifteen

years of California studies indicate that academy students outperform similar students in

their schools on attendance, credits earned, grades and graduation rates” (Stern, 2001, p.
1). Hollywood High School shows how academies can increase graduation rates and the

number of college bound students. In the early 1990’s Hollywood High School had some

of the lowest test scores in LA Unified and was known for teacher apathy (Shorr & Hon,

1999, p. 380). These obstacles led Abbe Shorr to develop a Media, Communication and

Technology Academy. Their first graduating class had 83% academy seniors graduating

compared to an overall graduation rate of 35% for Hollywood High School. In addition,

more than 65% of the graduating class received scholarships to 2- and 4-year universities.

An example of success with academies relative to test scores occurred in Ohio. A school

labeled to be in “academic emergency” by the state of Ohio divided their school into

academies. The study focused on the Freshmen Success Academy, an academy designed

to help students transition more easily into high school. Within three years of

implementing this academy, writing, reading, math and science scores increased by 10%

or more (Reini, 2004, p. 55) and failure rates in each of the core subjects (Science, Social

Studies and Algebra) were cut in half and the failure rate in English dropped from 32.7%

to 3.2% in three years (Reini, 2004, p. 56). In academies, class size is not reduced, but

students are given more support, teachers develop closer relationships with the students

as mentors, students are monitored closely for grades and attendance, and a familial

atmosphere is developed in their classes. This structure allows academies to mirror the

positive effects of reduced class size such as higher test scores, reduced discipline

problems and better attendance.

     Similar circumstances of low test scores and a high minority population led Oxnard

High School to begin their Law Academy. Three years ago our school was labeled

program improvement due to low CST scores. Our student population in the 2005-2006
school year was 66% Latino with 46% of our student population labeled as socio-

economically disadvantaged and 23% labeled as English Learners (Oxnard Union High

School District, 2007). Our administration along with the school board was looking for a

solution and suggested we start an academy on our campus. Our available resources led

us to design a Law Academy to prepare students to enter criminal justice careers. Our

academy began last year with 34 freshmen, 22 female and 12 male.            Our student

population was 75% Latino and 75% socio-economically disadvantaged as evidenced by

the percent eligible for free and reduced lunch. Several students have immediate family

in jail and many come from single parent households. Comparing these students at the

end of the year to the other at-risk freshmen, our students received an average GPA 0.5

points higher than their counterparts and not a single academy student missed more than

5 days of school during the school year. Due to the fact we are in our second year, I

cannot provide data to show increased scores on standardized tests or increased

graduation rates, but I do have grade and attendance data that demonstrates the academy

environment provides connections and assistance for students that makes them successful

in school even though they are at-risk for dropping out. Two case studies from our

academy demonstrate how academies are a viable alternative to reduced class size. One

of our sophomores, J.T., failed most of his freshmen year and was beginning to fail his

sophomore year. However, because all the academy teachers have him we could sit

down and discuss his academic weaknesses. We noticed some critical overlaps and had

him tested for special education, which he qualified for and is now getting A’s and B’s.

Another student, R.Z. is a freshman that went to an alternative junior high school due to

his behavior problems and began his high school career in similar fashion getting
suspended frequently and not showing up to his classes. However, in conversations our

counselor had with the student, she realized he was very intelligent but very damaged by

his past. Since offering him admission to the academy, he has not missed school and is

working at lunch to get his grades up as well as checking in with the counselor each


     Reduced class sizes are beneficial in increasing grades, test scores and graduation

rates and decreasing dropout rates through the connections and time the teacher can

spend with each student to address their needs. However, much of the money for reduced

class sizes is committed to the elementary school level because the positive start in

education has lasting effects into college. A solution utilized by many high schools is

development of academies. Academies mirror the success seen in students within small

classes by providing an environment with a common goal and committed staff that also

make connections with the students and develop an atmosphere of excellence despite

having twice the number of students defined as a small class.


American Federation of Teachers (2003). Issue Brief: Benefits of Small Class Size.
      Retrieved December 8, 2007 from

California Department of Education (2007). Class Size Reduction: Grades K-3.
       Retrieved December 8, 2007 from

California Department of Education (2007). High School Class Size Reduction.
       Retrieved December 8, 2007 from

California Department of Education (2006). Oxnard High School School Accountability
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       Public Schools. Sacramento: CDE Press

Cleary, M. & English, G. (2005). Small Schools Movement: Implications for Health
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EdSourceOnline (1998). Portable School Buildings: Scourge, Saving Grace, or Just Part
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Reini, E. (2004). Examining Different School Structures’ Effect on Reducing the
        Achievement Gap Between African-American and White Students. (Master’s
        Thesis. Cedarville University. 2004).

Shorr, A. & Hon, J. (1999). They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: Implementing a Career
       Academy Program for a Diverse High School Population. Journal of Education
       for Students Placed At Risk, 4 (4), 379-391.

Stern, D. (2001). Career Academies and High School Reform Before, During, and After
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West, Sandra et. al. (November 2007). Texas Secondary Science Safety Survey
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