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Overcrowded classes: good or bad?

(MS) — One of the longest-running debates in the world of education has been in regard to class size.

With class sizes in Farragut area schools nearly bursting at the seams, the debate seems appropriate.

There are those who feel that research and common sense suggest that a smaller class equates to a better learning environment. While this may be true, there is the argument that in order to facilitate smaller classes, schools must employ more teachers, thus stretching the already depleted resources of quality teachers and funds even more thinly.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, several experimental studies over the last several years have been conducted to take a look at class size and its relation to improved learning. Not all the questions about the impact of class size reductions have been answered, but overall findings point toward the beneficial effects of smaller classes — most notably for younger children and those who are disadvantaged or speak limited English.

Supporters of reduced class size, including the American Federation of Teachers, say that reduced class sizes offer the following advantages:

• Improved class atmosphere where students receive more individualized attention and teachers have the flexibility to use different instructional approaches and assignments.

• Fewer students in classrooms means there is a reduced chance for distractions among classmates and a lower level of noise.

• Teachers are able to relate to students on a personal level and can offer extra help, or recognize problems and special needs more readily.

• Smaller classes may reduce the number of disciplinary problems because teachers can easily keep watch on all of the class. By spending less time taking disciplinary actions, more time can be spent on lessons.

Research has shown that the advantages of a reduced class size are more apparent when the number of students in the class was fewer than 20, ideally between 15 to 19. In a 1989 Slavin study, classes of fewer than 20 students were compared to substantially larger classes, and students in both groups were comparable in demographics and educational ability. Slavin found that “reduced class size had a small positive effect on students that did not persist after their reduced class experience.”

In an effort to learn more about reduced class size benefits, over the years individual states and teaching districts have conducted their own research on the subject.

For example, Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achieve-ment Ratio) spent four years looking at kindergarten, first-, second-, and third-grade classrooms, which began in 1985. STAR compared classes of 13 to 17 students with classes of 22 to 26 students. Participating teachers didn’t receive any professional training on teaching reduced-size classes, and were randomly assigned to the classes. The study included 79 schools, more than 300 classrooms and 7,000 students.

The results of the experiment showed that students in the smaller classes outperformed those in the larger classes on both standardized and curriculum-based tests. This was true for both white and minority students in smaller classes, and for smaller class students from inner-city, urban, suburban, and rural schools.

Through the years, other studies have been conducted, which also come to similar conclusions that reduced class sizes are better — and some states have received the message and have implemented programs to make classes smaller in area schools. However, it isn’t as widespread as one might hope.

Critics of smaller classes say that the costs associated with such an undertaking are too high and are the primary reason behind keeping things as they are. In order to reduce class size, more qualified teachers have to be hired to cover these classes, and there is the immediate need of physical classroom space to house additional classes. With budgets already stretched, should cuts be made to other curriculum and programs to implement these changes? Many say no.

In addition, critics feel that reduced class size alone does not make for improved learning among students. They argue that teachers need to be properly trained to educate smaller classes, something that also requires additional funding.

While it is evident that class sizes hovering around 20 students create better learning environments, widespread class reduction requires a considerable commitment of funds and takes a toll on availability of qualified teachers. It may be up to individual school districts to determine if this type of plan is probable in its schools.


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