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Exploring Class Size
How Smaller Schools Improve Student Achievement

Smaller Schools and Classrooms: The Evidence is In
(By: Carol S. Witherell, Ph.D., Professor of Teacher Education, Lewis & Clark College)

I am grateful to Steven Carter for opening a thoughtful dialogue on the effects of class size on student learning in his feature article in Sunday's METRO section of the Oregonian (April 4, 1999). Nancy Fisher, a third/fourth grade teacher on Sauvie Island featured in the article, voices the experience of a vast majority of teachers, students, and parents on this important issue: when classes have 20 or fewer students, all students gain. This view is confirmed by a review of research studies on class size released in May of 1998 by the U. S. Department of Education: "Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?" The findings of this review, combined with research findings on smaller schools, have important implications for educational policy and decision-making at both the state and district levels.

The research on class size reveals that while reductions by just a few students (for example from 27 to 24 students) may not result in dramatic differences in student achievement, when class size is reduced to 15 to 20 students, several important areas are impacted: (1) Significant effects in achievement as measured by standardized achievement tests appear for most students, especially at the elementary level; (2) These effects are largest for minority and low income students at every grade level; (3) Students are more actively engaged in learning and their teachers spend more time in instruction rather than in classroom management; and (4) Students, teachers, and parents report positive effects on the quality of classroom activity.

Smaller schools also impact students’ education. Two large-scale studies are quite clear on this point. Kathleen Cotton, a researcher at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland, published a review of over 100 studies on the effects of school size in 1996 (available on the internet as http://www.aasa.org). Cotton found that students in smaller schools have achieved academically on par with and often better than those in larger schools; have stronger academic and general self-esteem; lower drop-out rates and higher attendance and graduation rates; lower incidences of negative social behavior, including disruptive and violent behavior, substance abuse, vandalism, theft, and gang participation; assume more personal responsibility; and participate in a greater number of extracurricular and leadership positions. Fewer students report feeling overlooked and alienated, and more express a feeling of belonging and overall satisfaction with their school. There is no sacrifice in curricular quality and students perform just as well on college entrance examinations and college acceptance rates. Minority students and those from low income families benefit even more than students in general in smaller schools. Teachers in small schools report higher satisfaction in their work and interpersonal relations among students, teachers, and administrators are described as more positive.

Cotton defines small schools in her review as elementary schools of 300-400 students and high schools of 400-600 students.

A second study, published in 1998 by New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, examined the effects of the size of New York City high schools on school costs and performance. In their executive summary, the authors cite their findings that smaller medium size high schools (600-1200 students) show better outputs, including attendance rates, test scores, and number of graduates, than larger schools and that small academic and articulated alternative high schools cost among the least per graduate of all New York City high schools. The report also found that positive effects were greatest for students from low income families, particularly low income minority students.

Some large schools have responded to these findings with a schools-within-a-school approach, with administrative autonomy within each of the units of the building or campus an important determinant of whether the positive effects will be realized.

Both studies suggest that per-pupil costs don’t have to be much higher in small schools. (For example, the average annual cost of educating a student in 1996 in New York City academic high schools of 600-1200 students was $6,943; for schools of 1200-2,000 students it was $6,849; for schools of over 2,000 students it was $6,219.) It appears that there may be more direct costs associated with reducing class and school size to the level that assures a quality education. However, what is so often missing from our calculations of educational costs are the economic and social short- and long-term costs of high drop-out rates; anti-social behavior and vandalism; juvenile crime, health problems, and addiction habits; teen pregnancy, parenting, and unemployment. These long-term costs accrue not only to youth and their families, but to all of us.

The statistical reports and test scores tell just part of the story.

Since standardized tests succeed at assessing a narrow spectrum of basic knowledge, mostly in the form of multiple choice items, they tell us very little about how students can actually apply basic skills to the solving of real problems or how well they understand broader concepts and context in the areas they are studying. We need to think more expansively about the assessment of student learning, including such approaches as presentations, exhibits, interviews, and portfolios, and encourage evaluation by teachers as well as by the students themselves. Because of the limitations of standardized testing, including their close correlation with socioeconomic status, citizens should be quite wary if their schools educational quality or their children’s educational progress is assessed only by standardized test scores. Such tests have long been known to do a poor job of measuring the rich diversity of what students really know and can do, and an abysmal job of measuring what students with limited English proficiency or special needs know and can do. Such a singular approach to measuring student achievement cannot possibly capture what it means to be an educated person.

When considering effective educational and social policy, it is wise for the public and journalists alike to discern what can be learned from case studies and the reports of those who teach and learn in schools. The experience of small public schools such as the Central Park East Schools in East Harlem, led by Deborah Meier, reveal the possibilities for dramatic improvements in our nations most challenging schools. Such case studies demonstrate that small schools can help mobilize the imagination, vision, and commitment of school and community members. Learning in these schools is balanced between achieving common standards and pursuing individual interests and talents, assessed through student portfolios and applied performance in addition to written tests.

During nearly thirty years of teaching experience spanning the elementary and university levels, I have noted wide-spread agreement among teachers, students, and parents regarding the conditions of schooling that are most conducive to student learning and well-being. Almost all I have asked believe that the quality of a child’s education is compromised when classes exceed 18-20 students, including grade levels beyond the primary grades.

The challenges our youth face call for a wise and thoughtful response from our families and communities alike. We have a rare opportunity at this time to use our resources and our imagination to improve the education, life opportunities, and well-being of all of our youth. The combined effects of smaller class size and smaller schools, continuing professional development and recruitment of talented teachers and school leaders, improved resources and facilities, expanded assessment strategies, opportunities for real-world learning experiences connected to school learning, and vigorous family and community involvement would all help assure that students from all walks of life will be able to learn well and thrive in school. Of all of these, I stand with Cotton, the authors of the New York University study, and our extraordinarily committed classroom teachers in believing that smaller schools and classes may be the single most important need in school reform. Implementing higher standards and new testing procedures without addressing the conditions of schooling will only result in tracking more children into failure, a cost that we surely cannot afford. The costs of educating youth well will be far less than the costs of educating them poorly.

Carol S. Witherell, Ph.D.
Professor of Teacher Education
Lewis & Clark College
Campus Box 14
Portland, OR 97219
(503) 768-7766
E-mail: csw@lclark.edu