Class Size Overrated Research Suggests

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

For classes of fewer than 30 students, reducing the number of pupils in the classroom can have less of an impact on academic achievement than improving relations between teachers and students, hiring more literacy specialists, early intervention for reading problems and improved classroom management, an educational researcher says.

Of all the ideas batted about in the debate on improving public education, cutting class size is the most popular.

Cheered by parents and teachers, as well as governments looking to win their votes, it appears to be a no-brainer. Fewer bodies to shepherd to and from the lunchroom, and to drag in and out of snowsuits, should leave more time for learning.

That’s why swelling classes are infuriating parents across the country, and are often the final straw in a public school parent’s decision to make the switch to private school. In Ontario, a Liberal promise to cap kindergarten through Grade 3 classes at 20 students is gaining wide support, especially in Toronto’s packed urban and exploding suburban neighbourhoods.

“When I watch them line up for class at recess, the lines just go on forever,” groans Sarah Garner, a Toronto mother. Her daughters, in grades 2 and 4, are in classes of 28. Parents dropping kids off in the morning swap stories about whose class is the biggest. Across town, Kevan Cowan watches his son join 29 Grade 4 classmates, and knows more will be coming. Last year, Grade 3 ended up with 33 kids.

But parents might be surprised to learn that research has not always concluded that class size reduction leads to improved academic achievement — and some education experts say the costly reform is not worth the investment.

Class size has to be very small to make a difference — only when class size gets to 15 students or less does it affect student performance.

“There is no simple answer,” said Bruno Zumbo, an expert in education statistics at the University of British Columbia. “The research has not been able to give people the answer they want to hear, that smaller is always better and bigger is always bad.”
In 1985, Tennessee began what is widely considered to be the most conclusive study on class size, involving 70 schools and 12,000 students. Students entering kindergarten were randomly assigned to one of three kinds of classes: a small class of 13 to 17 students, a regular-size class of 22 to 26, or a regular-size class with both a teacher and a teacher’s aide. The students’ progress was followed for four years.

By 1989, researchers saw that all students in the small classes had benefited, but the impact was greatest on those considered to be at risk — students from poor families. Teachers’ aides, surprisingly, had no effect on students’ performance. The project did not include classes with more than 26 pupils.

Newer international studies by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have added to the evidence that class size is less important than other factors when it comes to learning. Reducing class size from 28 to 20 students was found to have a minimal impact on student achievement.

“I know it seems counter-intuitive,” said Douglas Willms, director of the University of New Brunswick’s Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy, who led the OECD project.

“Class size makes a small difference, but doesn’t have a substantial effect. There are other kinds of interventions that can have much more powerful effects.”

Fifteen years ago, Dr. Willms thought differently. But after analyzing the effects of reducing class size in more than a dozen countries in a massive project for OECD, he now says other measures have a more significant impact. These include improving relations between teachers and students, hiring literacy specialists, intervening earlier than Grade 2 when a child is having trouble learning to read, teaching educators better classroom management, encouraging parents to read to their children in the evenings, and offering early childhood education programs.

But what does Dr. Willms think about a class of 33 Grade 3 students, such as the one Mr. Cowan’s son’s attended in Toronto? “I think it’s safe to say kids are going to start to suffer,” he said.

Indeed, the OECD study found that things start to go downhill when class size passes 30. Elementary classes of upwards of 30 are considered to be so ridiculous that North American researchers have not even bothered to investigate their effects.

Dr. Willms believes the ideal elementary class is 24 to 26 students, or 28 to 30 with a teachers’ aide. But he discourages governments from adopting the one-size-fits-all solution of class-size caps, a policy he thinks is more cosmetic than useful. He said a good teacher should be able to handle 26 elementary students at a school in a middle-class or affluent neighbourhood, even if a quarter of them have learning disabilities and behaviour problems. But a class of 20 in a poor neighbourhood, where most of the children do not speak English at home, is probably too much.

“It’s a relatively simple thing administratively to say they are going to do, and it’s politically popular,” Dr. Willms said. “But its not the most cost-effective way to improve performance.”

Dr. Willms commends New Brunswick, the province with the lowest test scores in the country, for not including class-size reduction in its overhaul of public education. This September, school boards will get new teachers — all of them literacy specialists, providing intensive reading and writing practise.

Even Kenneth Leithwood, associate dean of research at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who likes Ontario’s Liberal party pledge to cap class size, admits the effects will be limited.

“It won’t be as dramatic as it would be if you were able to get it down to 18 or 15. But it’s a wise direction to move in. Somewhere down the road you can move it even lower.”