Does Size Matter?

In many Jersey schools, classes are growing larger. Not everyone agrees how that will affect student performance.

Last year there were 24 fourth-graders in Carolyn Gappa’s social studies class at Woodbrook Elementary School in Edison. This school year that number will grow to 27.
Photo by Danielle Austen.

With one child going into kindergarten and another starting second grade, Springfield parent Robin Cornelison is happy her school district managed to limit its typical class size this year to 22 or 23 kids. In these challenging times for New Jersey public schools, coping with a bitter diet of spending caps and reduced state aid, this is no mean feat.

“Eighteen would be a great number, but that’s like private school,” says Cornelison, a former teacher. “If you go over 25, it’s too many. With a smaller group the teacher gets more done, and the kids get more attention.”

Among parents and teachers, that’s certainly the prevailing view. Research backs it up, to a point. But budget cuts and teacher layoffs are driving up class size. More than half of New Jersey school districts report their average class size increased during the 2010-2011 school year and will rise again in 2011-2012, according to a recent survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

What’s more, small class sizes are out of favor with officials like Governor Chris Christie and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who insist teacher quality matters more than class size when it comes to student achievement. That has many New Jersey parents and teachers concerned that the state is headed back to the days when large classes were the norm.

 Since the 1980s, more than 20 states—but not New Jersey—have adopted policies or mandates decreasing class size, heeding studies suggesting smaller classes promote learning. In the process, they’ve spent billions hiring new teachers. Now many of those states are facing serious budget shortfalls and are rewriting or relaxing the mandates. As a result, class sizes are swelling across the country. In New Jersey, where there are no state mandates, school administrators are on their own when it comes to determining class size. Most base their decisions on a combination of factors, including their own experience, the research and community expectations.

In Edison Township, the state’s fifth- largest school district, superintendent Richard O’Malley would like to decrease class size in all subjects and grades but doesn’t have the money. During the budget crisis last year, Edison took a huge hit. First the district lost $12 million in state aid; then voters defeated the local school budget, costing it another $6 million. Edison cut 131 educational positions, throttled back full-day kindergarten to a half day and increased class size. Administrators attempted to buffer the primary grades from the impact. But classes for older students crept to 30.

“Putting 30 students in a classroom has a tremendous impact on learning. My thinking is that size always matters, no matter the age, although the research focuses on K to 2,” O’Malley says. “I’m convinced these cuts will cause major repercussions, though I don’t think you will see them for years. With the half-day kindergarten, you’ll have to look at their scores in third grade.”

Many of O’Malley’s teachers agree. Diane Egnasko, a veteran teacher at Edison’s Woodbrook School, had 27 students in her third-grade class last spring. “I would say a good size is 20, tops,” she says. “With this many, sometimes it becomes difficult to meet with them individually every day.”

For the new school year, New Jersey boosted state aid a bit, restoring two percentage points of the 5 percent budget cut ordered in 2010. In Edison, this amounted to $3.8 million. Voters also approved the school budget. “I think maybe it passed because so many things were taken away the year before, and classes got large,” says Darlene Delli Paoli, a parent of three and head of the Edison Township Parent Advisory Council. The infusion allowed O’Malley to hire back 27 teachers, 17 of whom will further tamp down class sizes in elementary schools. “We’re limited as to how much we can recover from the devastation,” O’Malley says, “but it will help.”

Not all school administrators share O’Malley’s concern. When the School Boards Association survey asked school officials in affected districts if bigger classes have a negative impact on instruction, 41.4 percent answered yes; 47.1 percent said not certain; and 11.5 percent replied no.

The research on the question is a little fuzzy, especially when it comes to children above third grade. Although teachers and parents strongly favor small classes, studies show statistically significant changes in student achievement only in early grades in classes with under 20 students, according to Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University. Above 20, slight differences in class size don’t appear to matter. “If you go from 26 to 29, or from 30 to 25, there is probably not going to be any statistical difference in overall student achievement,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean there might not be a difference for a few individual children.”

Many variables come into play, including teacher quality, method of instruction and the needs of the students involved. For example, Cutler says, it’s much easier to lecture to a large group from the front of the room than it is to handle smaller groups working on different levels or tasks. 

The most influential American study on class size—and the largest—was a $12 million project begun in Tennessee in 1985, known as the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio or STAR. It concluded that smaller classes for the youngest learners not only improved student performance during a four-year experimental period, but also produced differences later on. Students who had been in small classes had better graduation rates, higher grade point averages and were more inclined to pursue higher education. The study showed the small-class advantage was most pronounced among minority students.

STAR, conducted by the Tennessee Department of Education, studied more than 7,000 children at 79 schools. Pupils were randomly assigned to one of three settings: a “small” class consisting of 13 to 17 students and one teacher; a “regular” class of 22 to 26 students and one teacher; and a “regular” class of 22 to 26 students with one teacher and a full-time aide. (Students in “regular” classes with aides did not demonstrate significantly higher achievement than those in classes without aides.)  The study yielded its first report in 1990, but researchers continue to extrapolate follow-up findings from the data.

Charles Achilles, formerly a professor at Seton Hall University’s College of Education, was a primary investigator for STAR. He is also one of its staunchest defenders. “One reason why the study was so successful was that it was randomized,” Achilles says. “Every class had some smart kids and some not-so-smart kids. Students either got real good teachers or real not-so-good teachers. But students in small classes always did better.”

 Achilles is convinced that small classes, though costly, can save school districts money in the long run. “Each student gets more of the teacher’s time and more attention, especially in the early years, when they’re trying to learn to play the game of education,” he says. “When you have small classes, you will find almost no kids in special education. When you don’t, too many students in their early years get put in special education, and they never get out. That becomes very expensive.”

Mary Jo Patterson writes frequently about education issues for New Jersey Monthly.

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