Education is a pillar of modern society and the subject of endless,, often passionate arguments about how it can best be improved. In the U. S. ,there is heated debate following revelations that the country’s secondary school students perform poorly relative to many Asian and European students. The news coincided with increasing concern over the nation’s urban and lower-income suburban schools, too many of which are languishing at achievement levels far below those of middle-class and upper middle-class suburban schools.
Of all the ideas for improving education, few are as simple or attractive as reducing the number of pupils per teacher. With its uncomplicated appeal and lack of a big powerful group of opponents, class-size reduction has lately developed from a subject of primarily academic interest to a key political issue. In the United States more than 20 states and the federal government have adopted policies aimed at decreasing class sizes, and billions of dollars have been spent or committed in the past few years The demand for smaller classes is also growing in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and even Japan, whose record of secondary school performance is the envy of most other developed countries. ost other developed countries.
The most obvious drawback to class-size reduction is the huge cost. It requires more teachers, more classrooms, and more classroom equipment and resources. These expenses can dwarf the price of alternative schemes, such as testing teachers or increasing their pay as a means of attracting better candidates. The state of California, for example has been spending more than $1. 5 billion annually over the past several years to reduce class size to 20 or fewer for children in the four- to seven-year-old bracket.
On the other hand, if smaller classes really do work, the economic benefits could be huge. They would accrue not just from the benefits of a better-educated workforce but also from other sources, such as the avoided medical costs and sick days of a healthier,more informed populace. The surge of interest in smaller classes has spurred fresh analyzes of the largest,most conclusive study to date, which took place in Tennessee in the late 1980s. s. At the same time, new data are flowing from various initiatives, including the California program and a smaller one in Wisconsin.
These results and analyzes are finally offeing some tentative responses to the questions that researchers must answer before legislators can come up with policies that make educational and economic sense: Do small classes in fact improve school achievement? If they do, at what age level do they accomplish the greatest good? What kind of students gain the greatest benefit, and most importantly, how great is the benefit? Educators have a multitude of explanations for why smaller class sizes might be expected to improve academic performance, although frequently the ideas are anecdotal.
Fewer students in the classroom seem to translate into less noise and disruptive behavior from students, which not only gives the teacher more time for class work but also more freedom to engage students creatively—by, for example, dividing them into groups for specific projects. In addition, smaller classes make it more likely that the teacher can give greater individual attention to struggling students. Smaller classes also allow teachers to encourage more discussion, assign more writing, and closely examine their students’ written work.
In other words, much of the benefit of reduced class size may depend on whether the teachers adapt their methods to take advantage of smaller classes. Finally, some analysts believe that the very youngest age group in smaller classes are more likely to develop good study habits, higher self-esteem and possibly other beneficial cognitive traits— which may very well persist for years, even after the students have gone back to more normal-sized classes.
One way investigators have attempted to analyze the effects of class size is by review ing existing data, such as records kept by the U. S. Department of Education. These show that between 1969 and 1997, the average number of pupils per teacher in American public and private elementary schools fell from 25. 1 to 18. 3, a decline of greater than 27%. In secondary schools, the number also fell, from 19. 7 to 14. 0. Of concern, however, is the fact that despite these steep drops in pupil-teacher ratios, the improvement in academic performance was negligible. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a series of tests that is the only United States-wide indicator of student knowledge in reading, mathematics, science and other subjects—show no significant gains.
In some specific age and subject categories, such as 17-year-olds and science, performance actually decreased slightly. However, these findings do not necessarily mean that class size makes no difference. For a variety of reasons, most researchers, including the writers, pay little attention to these figures (Figure 1). For instance, schools strive for more than just high test scores; they also usually try to keep their dropout rate low. In fact, the dropout rate for students aged 16–24 fell from 15 to 11 percent over the period. Because dropouts generally come from the low end of the achievement distribution, a reduction in
dropout rate could be expected to pull down average test scores in the upper grades Another reason for discounting these data goes right to the heart of the difficulties in this field of study: it is hard to isolate the effects of class size from the myriad factors that influence student performance. The reality is that in 1995 only 68% of American students came from families with two parents in the home—down from 85% in 1970. The fraction of children who had difficulty speaking English rose from 2. 8% in 1970 to 20. 2% in 1995. There was some good news: the median level of education among parents increased slightly during
that time period, as did the level among teachers, whose average amount of experience also went up. Basically, demographic shifts make it very difficult to assess the effect of reductions in pupil–teacher ratios. Well-designed experiments attempt to cancel out the influence of those other factors by randomly assigning students and teachers to different class sizes and by including a large sample. Over the past 35 years, hundreds of studies and analyses of existing data have focused on class size.
Most found evidence that smaller classes benefit students, particularly at the youngest level, and especially children in danger of becoming underachievers Unfortunately, most of these studies were poorly designed. Teacher and student assignments were rarely sufficiently random; a number of studies were simply too brief or too small, and too few had independent evaluation. The notable exception was the Tennessee study. The distinguished Harvard University statistician, Frederick Mosteller, has called it “one of the greatest experiments in education in United States history. ” The Student–Teacher Achievement Ratio, better known as Project STAR, was a state-sponsored, $12 million demonstration program (see Figure 1).
Students entering kindergarten were randomly assigned to one of three kinds of classes: a small class of 13 to 17 children, a normal-sized class of 22 to 26 children, or a normal-sized class with both a teacher and a full-time teacher’s assistant. The students remained in whatever category they had been assigned to until they had reached the third grade, after which they joined a normal classroom in the fourth. To ensure that teaching quality did not differ, teachers were randomly assigned to small and normal-sized classrooms. Few teachers received any special training for working with small classes, and there were no new curricular materials.
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