Class Size: Why Size and Money Really Do Matter

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Today we’ll be looking at class sizes and funding and how these 2 things directly relate to the quality of education your students receive.

Below you will find the full show notes and reference list for Episode 20 of The State of Education Podcast, presented by One-Room Education, along with links to the resources mentioned in this episode.

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Question of the Week:

How many kids do you think you had in a class when you were in school?

If you’re a teacher, how do you see the amount of students per class affecting your effectiveness?

If you have any questions or comments about this episode or any of the information presented, please make sure to leave a comment at the bottom of this post.

Class Size: Why Size and Money Really do Matter

Show Notes

Welcome back to The State of Education podcast, presented by One-Room Education!

In today’s episode we are going to be talking about classroom sizes and why they matter.

  • Why classroom sizes are important when it comes to student experience 
  • What classroom sizes should be from a student’s perspective 
  • What classroom sizes should be from a teacher’s perspective

When I was in seventh and eighth grade, classes were small and weren’t overwhelming. Maybe low 20s. And the teacher had more availability to work with students one-on-one and really make sure that everyone understood the concepts.

In a bigger classroom, even if the teacher tries, certain things are harder or impossible like trying to create a balance between students’ behaviors and teaching. 

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

If the students I see are in more of a self-contained special education classroom where all the students are receiving special education services, a lot of times those classes are smaller, they may have less than 10 kids. And that works really nice because I found that the teacher and I could really collaborate and work together to plan. 

And it was like all hands on deck, the teacher, the aide, and so we could make sure that all students were participating and even if there were certain students where their specific goals weren’t necessarily targeted in that lesson or even if they didn’t receive direct services from me, it was something that they all benefited from and I really enjoyed doing that. But again, it works best when it’s the smaller group. You know, when I’ve tried to do things with an entire class and maybe more general education and there’s like, you know, 30 kids that is definitely, it’s definitely more challenging. 

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Because my school district and the school district I grew up in are very different from some of the districts that I’ve taught in so far as behaviors, IEPs, gifted class sizes and everything. So whenever I talk to people around here about classroom sizes and I’m talking to them about how it’s so hard for teachers, like give teachers a little bit of a break because they have upwards of 30 kids in a classroom that they’re trying to manage. And yeah, that’s why a lot of stuff doesn’t seem like it’s getting covered. People are like, there’s no way that there are 30 kids in a class. I’m like, seriously? I’ve had upwards of 35 kids in a classroom at one time that I’m expected to “teach”. Yeah, that’s crazy. 

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

It’s almost like it’s getting worse, because now there’s so many shortages that classes are being split up in a way that each class is getting bigger. So each teacher has more responsibility.

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

So I would assume that their classroom sizes would be smaller. The average class size for the entire state of Utah, so like all classrooms added together, the average is 26 students across all grade levels. And in Maine, you have a classroom average of 17 students per teacher. That would probably be why Maine has better national test scores also than Utah does. The national average of class size, if you put all the states together, is right around 24 students in 2022.

From “The Top 10 Most Crowded Schools”

So according to the national standardized tests that are required by laws that we will be talking about here pretty soon, Maine has much higher testing score averages than Utah. The top 10 most crowded states for classrooms. Like I said, Utah is number one, California is number two, which didn’t surprise me at all because if you think of just LA County schools, of course they’re the most crowded. Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Minnesota, Arizona, Washington, Indiana and Idaho, round out the top 10.

From “The Top 10 Most Crowded Schools”

Several studies have shown that reducing class size increases overall student achievement, especially for younger disadvantaged children.

From “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

Students receive more individualized attention and interaction with the teacher. And that is a big one because the younger the child is, the more personal interaction they need from their caretakers. And you and I have discussed already that teachers are caretakers for these children while they’re in your classroom. So more interaction with a direct caretaker, the teacher in this case, is a huge advantage not just the educational experience, but also the emotional and social experience of the students within the school. 

Katie J. referencing  the article “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches, that’s absolutely true. You have a smaller class size, you can get through material quicker, which means that you can give a lecture, you can watch a video, and you can do a hands-on activity all at the same time that you would need to go over the lecture material for a larger class with a variety of behavioral issues. Fewer students are less distracting to each other than a large group of children. Again, that goes back to the 10-8 year olds for a birthday party, which I was talking about earlier, that’s exactly what they’re talking about there.

Katie J. referencing  the article “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Teachers have more time to teach because there are fewer disciplinary problems, Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved, that is so true. I found in my personal experience, the smaller the class size, the closer the students tend to be socially, and the less likely they are to criticize each other for questions or getting something wrong.

The larger the classroom, the more class clowns you’ll have, and the more kids will get teased for asking what’s perceived as “stupid” questions by other students or for just not getting the concept at all. So the smaller the class size, the more involved students get, and that’s just a peer group social thing. 

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

You put us with a bunch of peers and everybody becomes very reserved. And we become really self-conscious and second guessing ourselves and stuff where if you put us in front of a class of our kids, we’re super confident and we know what we’re doing. But it’s just this really interesting psych thing to watch happen. So I think the same thing happens for our students, obviously. So the smaller the group, the more outgoing you’ll be, the larger the group, the more chances there are for you to be perceived as unintelligent, as weird, as whatever. And everybody knows being a teenager is awkward enough.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Teachers have more time to cover additional materials and use supplementary texts and enrichment activities. As a practical matter, it is not possible for most public schools to hire enough teachers so that all classes in grades kindergarten through 12th grade have no more than, for example, 18 students. Given finite resources to hire new teachers, judgments have to be made about where the additional teachers should be placed.

Quote from “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in the academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

Quote from “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

So they have “eligible for free lunch” students and “not eligible for free lunch” students. “Eligible for free lunch” students are kids that get free lunch from the school because of their parents’ income. It went from 70% of those kids graduating to whenever they implemented the smaller class sizes, it went up to almost 90% of the low income kids that get free lunch actually graduating.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

I feel like a big component of that too is depending on the family situation, what students are dealing with outside of school. I think the emotional component is big and like you said before, having a smaller class, the teacher can devote more time to talking to the students and the students I think would feel like they have more of a relationship with their teacher and maybe having that person they can talk to or who’s going to be more like a mentor even. 

If the class is bigger, the teacher just doesn’t have time for that, whether they want to or not. And that combined with all of the things you said could just help propel them to get through school just because of that support that they have with the emotional side too.

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

But the more students that you put on a single teacher, the more likely they are to get burned out. They’re either going to get burnt out and quit or they’re going to get burnt out and become that cold teacher that nobody wants to have because they just don’t care anymore. And the smaller class sizes provide teachers that little bit of emotional support leeway.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Based on the STAR project and other studies confirming its results, class size reduction is most effective when:

  1.  Classes should be between 13 and 17 students. Some say between 15 and 19.
  2.  Schools with low income and low achievement students should be targeted first. 
  3. There is an adequate supply of qualified teachers 
  4. There is adequate classroom space.
Quote from “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

Those who oppose making class reduction a priority generally acknowledge that there are benefits from smaller classes, especially for young children. They apply cost benefit analysis, however, to conclude that costs for reducing class sizes are too high for what they call the slight benefits. They claim that it would be more cost effective to focus on reform measures other than class size reduction, such as high academic standards, more challenging curricula, more qualified teachers, and more support for teachers.

Quote from “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

And I would propose that even an inadequate teacher may be able to have a mentorship type program where they’re able to learn how to actually be a more effective educator with a smaller classroom because maybe they’re just not great at classroom management for large classes. Maybe if they have a smaller class with less behavioral or emotional problems, then they’re actually not a bad teacher.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

That always bothers me when the best solution for students not meeting whatever the goals are is to increase the standards. That’s basically the opposite of what would help.

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

Another concern of critics of class size reduction is whether the achievement benefits for the children in smaller classes are temporary or lasting. Some studies have concluded that the higher test scores of students from smaller classes are not maintained throughout the students’ education.

Quote from “Smaller Class Sizes: Pros and Cons”

Just from personal experience, even if my environment changed later in my schooling, that did not negate the benefits of the smaller class sizes in my early education. I still experienced those benefits. And I think the teacher still experienced those benefits during the time. So I know they might say they don’t have the numbers to show that it continues forever, but it still is a benefit wherever it’s experienced.

Amanda, The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

So up until third grade, you’re learning how to read. And then starting in fourth grade, you read to learn. So if you’re not able to comprehend what you’re reading in third grade, then you’re gonna be screwed for the rest of your educational career, which is again why I advocate for mastery-based education instead of age-grouped grading education. Because then third grade wouldn’t matter. You just have to master it. You just have to master reading.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

I tell everybody, get involved. If you’re a homeschool mom, take your kids to a school board meeting. Have them read a passage from a book that they’re reading currently and say, “Why aren’t the kids in this school on grade level with my homeschooled kid?” Because as homeschool parents, we tend to just completely remove ourselves from the system. Because we know it’s failing, we know it sucks, get the F away from us and our kids, we’re dipping out, peace out.

I am of the mentality that just because I’m able to do that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other people’s kids and the situation that they’re left in. And the only way that we fix that is for everybody to get involved with local politics, and local school boards and union meetings. Fun fact, teachers unions hate me. But the fun fact is most teachers unions are open. So you can go to a teachers union meeting and hear what they’re talking about. 

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

And this really is from my perspective, if you’re talking about an actual possible solution to crowded classrooms, the only thing that I see as a viable option to help fix that problem is providing school vouchers or making it so that parents are able to homeschool. By controlling inflation and making it so that you can have a one income household again, instead of mandating essentially through price increases and inflation that both parents have to work and because of that by default, the children have to be sent to an institution of one type or another.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

You know, that’s part of why I started One Room was to get the information out there to parents and other community members, not just parents, anybody that’s living legally in a US community should be worried about what’s going on in schools because that’s the future. What they do in schools, what they teach in schools or don’t teach in schools is what the future of your community is going to look like. That’s why schools are supposed to be run individually on a local basis so that the values of those local communities can be carried through to future generations. That’s why federal involvement, I don’t think, has been a great thing. Because as with anything, when it gets standardized, it loses its soul.

Katie J., The State of Education Podcast, 5/30/23.

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