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OC Family Magazine Review





  • November 2011 Issue

    Size matters

    As budget cuts mean larger classes, education experts give insight to what it means.

    by Kelly St. John Regier

If it seems like your child has more classmates this year, you are not alone.

Throughout California, school districts have been gradually increasing class sizes to cope with declining revenues. Statewide, class sizes last year averaged 25 students in grades K-3 and 31 or more in other grades, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. That was a huge jump from just two years ago, when the averages were 20 students in K-3 and 28 in other grades.

In Orange County and the Inland Empire, it is not unheard of to hear about kindergarten classes with 32 students, sixth grade classes with 36 and high school classes with 45 students or more.

For parents like Ann Johnson, the situation is alarming. The Lake Forest mother of three remembers how much attention her son, now in middle school, received in first grade, when he had just 19 classmates.

“I didn’t realize it then, but the teachers truly personalized his education,” she says. “Then class sizes started to increase. When my second son began to experience these larger class sizes, I could see a dramatic difference in what the teacher was able to cover, and I saw the number of dynamic writing lessons decrease and busy worksheets increase.”

Teachers like Whitney Amsbary say there’s no question that larger classes have affected how they teach.

“You don’t do as much of the small group, individualized stuff you would like to do,” says Amsbary, who teaches in Anaheim Hills. This year her fifth grade class has 31 students, four more than last year. “Correcting 30-plus essays, even if it’s only five paragraphs, is a lot. It makes me think twice about the assignments I do when you have more kids in the class.”

Parents almost universally prefer smaller classes. But education researchers say that, even though the increases are worrisome, parents should not panic.

“The short answer is that the effects of class size on student achievement aren’t that great,” says David Plank, executive director of Stanford University’s Policy Analysis for California Education. 

Unless classes for the youngest grades are sized at about 15 students or fewer, Plank says, there does not seem to be much difference. To raise student achievement, he says, money would be more wisely invested in lengthening the school day, funding summer school and improving teacher quality.

The best evidence that class size does matter is a study done in Tennessee in the late 1980s and early 1990s, says Dominic J. Brewer, associate dean of research and faculty affairs at USC’s Rossier School of Education. That study found that small classes (13 to 17 students) in grades K-3 had a lasting positive effect on student achievement in reading and math, especially

for kids who were struggling and at risk.

In that case, the early investment in class-size reduction pays off a decade later.

“Those kids were less likely to drop out of school, had higher grade point averages and were more likely to attend college,” Brewer says.

But other research about class sizes is less clear about whether going from 23 to 26 students or 30 to 35 students in a classroom makes much difference, Brewer says. He notes that even California’s class-size-reduction program – which introduced 20-to-1 student-to-teacher class sizes in first through third grades  – has not been proved to have lasting impacts on student achievement.

“There is plenty of evidence that the teacher is by far the most important factor [on how students achieve],” Brewer says. “A great teacher can accomplish as much with a bigger class, while an ineffective teacher may not be able to take much advantage of a smaller class.”

Brewer says that school districts still need to keep classes as small as possible in the lower grades, when children first learn reading and math skills. If that means that school districts have to compensate by increasing class sizes in high schools, it might be a worthy trade-off, he says.

“I know it feels really tough to be out there in schools. It’s a tough environment, but as individual parents they can help by not overreacting,” Brewer says. “I doubt that gradual cuts, although they make it harder, are going to lead to dramatic changes in test scores.

“Rather than panicking about the size of the classroom, parents can make sure they can get their kid in front of the best teacher,” Brewer adds. “Also, parents can compensate at home. We tend to overestimate how much learning happens in school versus out of school. There are ways to make that up outside of school. Work with them on their homework and add enrichments. And, in the extreme case, if you can afford it, get a tutor.”

High-tech help: ClickN KIDS learning software 

ClickN KIDS was developed by Dr. J. Ron Nelson, a nationally recognized early-education research professor. He designed fun, interactive programs to support the core curriculum for U.S. schools. The program allows children in large classes to work through one-on-one lessons at their own pace to reinforce classroom progress at home. 

ClickN KIDS allows children to spend more time mastering skills they might miss at school while a teacher is helping other students.

Since class sizes are so large now, it’s difficult for teachers to work with children individually to discover what areas they are struggling in. The program provides detailed progress reports that specify the areas in which kids need additional practice. This gives parents and teachers additional information to help improve literacy progress.

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