The investment in classroom size, bigger isn’t really better

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Computers alleviate larger classroom size

In this file photo from May 15, 2012, Partnership for Los Angeles Coordinator of School Improvement Myeisha Phillips supervises Ritter Elementary School elementary students practicing their math operator skills. As teacher layoffs resulted in larger class sizes, schools were increasingly looking to technology to help bear the load. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Whether it’s the size of a television or memory power of the latest tablet, size does matter.

Joking aside, one area where smaller is better is in the classroom. These are the findings of a recently published study from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. VOXXI talked to the study’s author, Northwestern University Associate Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach.

“For whatever reason, downsize reduction or small classes have fallen out of favor over the last 40 years,” Schanzenbach told VOXXI. “One reason is, Malcolm Gladwell made it an example in this latest book saying you think it’s an advantage but it’s not really. And that’s just not accurate given the research. He really cherry picked his examples there.”

Another driving force behind the study is current education policy, where emphasis revolves around this need for high-quality teachers. Schanzenbach said another part of that conversation should be providing incentives for high-quality teachers to join the teaching force, stay in teaching and work in schools where teachers are needed most.

“What people are forgetting is the tried and true, high-quality teachers in small classes really does work,” Schanzenbach said.

Classroom size at a glance

Here are some findings from the recent study:

  • Not only is class size an important determinant of student outcomes, but increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes.Increasing class size harms children’s test scores in the short run, but also in the long run with human capital formation.
  • The money saved today by increasing class sizes results in more substantial social and educational costs down the road.
  • The impact on class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children. Furthermore, any increase in class size proves most harmful to these populations.
  • Policymakers need to weigh the efficacy of class-size policy versus other potential uses of money. Even though lower class size comes at a cost, in the long run it could be the more cost-effective policy overall.

SEE ALSO: Technology in the classroom is changing education

The investment in smaller class size

“It’s not rocket science but it’s a bad investment to say today we don’t have the money to make sure that kids get high-quality education because we’re going to pay for that down the road,” Schanzenbach said.

That’s not conjecture from Schanzenbach. Instead, she points to Project STAR (for Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), which is a study that started in 1985 and followed kids of varying class sizes. Now nearly 35 years later, the data is revealing.

“The evidence I’d argue is pretty clear that small classes have long-term positive impacts,” Schanzenbach said. “We know that from decades of research that if you go to college you’re going to earn more in the long run. So we’re expecting as these kids continue to age, we are able to see they earn more.”

In a nutshell, smaller classes means struggling kids receive more attention. However, it also means teachers have time to challenge those students ahead of the curve so everyone is growing. Also, fewer students in classrooms mean discipline is less of an issue with teachers.

The Common Core

The Schanzenbach study also points to better results stemming from class size in the students’ adult life. (Shutterstock)

“The other thing we see documented are lower crime rates and teenage pregnancies assigned to small classes,” Schanzenbach said. “This is broadly consistent with other research in this area where if we invest in kids during early life, preschool or K-3 or what, it not only improves their outcome simultaneously but it sticks with them.”

The one group of kids who most benefit from smaller classrooms are low-income students. If there is one message that policymakers and educators take away from Schanzenbach’s study, perhaps this is it:

“If we had $1 we wanted to spend on smaller classes, we should target that dollar towards lower income kids because the bang for the buck is higher there,” Schanzenbach said. “That’s something that’s a worthwhile investment. We all have to remember that education is an investment in our kids and our future.”

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