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Do the Benefits of Smaller Class Sizes Always Equal the Hype?

Overcrowded classrooms are one of the biggest workplace headaches for teachers and many education experts argue for the benefits of smaller class sizes. Both the gains and drawbacks to smaller class sizes are touched upon in a 2017 study that looks at the push for smaller classes in New York City’s public schools.

The study’s author, Michael Gilraine, isolated the effect of class size reductions in 473 of the city’s schools, looking at third- through sixth-grade classes. He focused on classes that moved above or below the city’s 32 student cap. When classes moved from 32 to 33 students a new teacher would have to be added, however, if they dropped down from 33 to 32 or under, no new teacher.

The study partially cemented what education experts agree on: student achievement goes up when there are smaller class sizes.

Gilraine found that when a class was reduced by just four students, math and reading achievements improved in an amount equal to if the students had received an extra two months of classroom learning time.

The catch is that when a school would have to bring in an additional teacher, the gains would often be canceled out. Because the schools would have to hire a new teacher quickly, this often resulted in less-experienced and lower-qualified candidates. With 50 percent of the examined classes depending on newly-hired teachers and many of those teachers starting mid-school year, there was also the added potential for classroom disruption.

One of the leading arguments for the student benefits of smaller class sizes recalls a 1980s study in over 80 different schools in Tennessee. The study showed that overwhelmingly when class-size reduction programs are strategically implemented (a key component), student achievement rises as the class size drops, particularly for elementary school children.

Swelling class sizes not only have a counterproductive effect on students, but can be especially overwhelming for new teachers. Philadelphia’s schools have cut hundreds of staff positions in recent years and classes have sometimes ballooned to as many as 40 students. Similar circumstances in Arizona pushed Ubaldo Escalante Bustillos, a young teacher to leave the job once his math class reached an unmanageable 48 students.

With many school districts around the country trying to find a way out of a budget crisis, large class sizes are nearly unavoidable though.

Schools in Iowa City, Iowa are trying to find a solution that’s not only budget-friendly, but beneficial to the students. Last year the district began using the Weighted Resource Allocation Model, staffing the most teachers at schools where students faced the highest barriers to education. The results, for the most part, proved to be positive. Schools with students in the “high barriers” group showed significant gains of 11 percent in reading proficiency. The “medium barriers” group though saw a decrease of 1.24 percent. While it wasn’t perfect it did lead school administrators to the conclusion they were on the right path.

The school plans to track the link between the resource model and science and math proficiency in grades 3-6 of the new school year.

Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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