||Volume 13, Number 5, March 2001|
The research is clear:
Class size matters to kids
by Peter Owens
The research is clear. “The number of students in a class makes a difference in students’ behaviour and academic performance, participation in school activities, and in parental involvement in schools.” Dr. Charles Achilles, one of the researchers who worked on the STAR Project (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) met with the executive of the B.C. Primary Teachers’ Association to describe the now-famous study. The study involved more than 11,600 Tennessee children in Grades K–3 and followed their progress to the post-secondary level. It lays to rest any question of the importance of class size. According to Achilles, not one study of class size between 1904 and the present contradicts their findings. Theirs is by far the largest and most comprehensive study.
Achilles points out that a lot of confusion in the debate on class size occurs because people cite studies that mix pupil-teacher ratios (PTR) and class size. Pupil-teacher ratio is the number of students in a school divided by the number of qualified teachers. The number of students in a teacher’s class determines class size. Achilles agrees that research is inconclusive on whether or not changing the PTR affects the quality of education, but there is no doubt that class size matters.
In the STAR Project, students and teachers were randomly assigned to various class-size conditions in Grades K–3: small classes of about 13 to 17, regular classes of about 22 to 26, and regular classes of about 22 to 26 with full-time teacher assistants. The results are clear; the students in small classes for the first four years of school performed better on nationally normed and criterion-referenced tests by the end of Grade 3.
Moreover, students who had been in small classes for K–3 continued to move ahead of their grade level as they continued through to Grade 12. A greater proportion of those students wrote entrance exams for post-secondary institutions.
The study found that students in small classes did the best. Students in regular classes were next, and students in regular classes with a full-time TA were third.
The only variable in the study was the size of the class. The evidence is clear that having students begin schooling in classes small enough to have their needs met more than pays off in the long run. Students do better in academics, their behaviour is better because it can be monitored, and they can be taught behaviour appropriate for school. They develop a more positive attitude toward school, and their parents become more involved. Teachers find it more rewarding to teach small classes.
The Social Security numbers, birth dates, and gender of the students participating in the study were used to track them. That information told researchers how they did in following grades, as well as how many applied for post-secondary institutions, were charged with criminal offenses, or applied for welfare.
Being in a small class for the first four years of school had a positive effect on all areas investigated. A greater proportion of students from small classes applied to post-secondary institutions. Beginning school in a small class cut in half the gap between whites and Afro-Americans for the proportion applying to post-secondary. A smaller proportion of students who began in small classes were charged with a criminal offense, and a smaller proportion applied for welfare benefits.
Small class size not only benefits the students in the class but also pays dividends to society as a whole. It is an investment we cannot afford to ignore.
Achilles likened it to the Ministry of Health’s asking doctors to eradicate polio but refusing to provide the vaccine. He said we know the importance of small classes and we can’t afford to ignore the overwhelming evidence.
Peter Owens is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Organization Support Division and editor of Teacher Newsmagazine.