Schooled Reporting on education

Smaller class size may not always be better

Education | International study questions conventional wisdom on student-teacher ratios
by Leigh Jones
Posted 11/21/18, 05:50 pm

U.S. schools have long emphasized small class sizes as the best environment for teaching and learning. But education experts don’t agree on the benefits, with dueling studies showing both significant and minimal effects.

The debate among analysts and policymakers has persisted for decades. But among those most directly affected, it’s pretty well considered a settled subject. Small classes are popular with parents, who want their children to have as much one-on-one time with teachers as possible. They’re also popular with teachers, who have an easier time managing fewer students and administering fewer assignments.

But a new worldwide study suggests low student-teacher ratios have few benefits. Researchers with the Danish Center for Social Science Research reviewed the results of 127 studies from 41 different countries. Some showed a small improvement in test results, but most showed smaller class sizes had no effect.

Students benefited most from small class sizes when it came to reading. A randomly selected student from a small class had a 53 percent chance of having a higher reading score than one from a large class—only slightly better than even odds. When it came to math, a randomly selected student in a small class had only a 49 percent chance of having a higher test score than a student in a large class.

Given the lack of evidence showing a benefit, the researchers suggested school systems reconsider the underlying assumptions that drive everything from school construction to staffing.

“Class size reduction is costly,” they wrote. “The available evidence points to no or only very small [effects] of small classes in comparison to larger classes. Moreover, we cannot rule out the possibility that small classes may be counterproductive for some students. It is therefore crucial to know more about the relationship between class size and achievement in order to determine where money is best allocated.”

Japan and Korea routinely come up as examples in the class size debate. Both countries have some of the largest classes in the world and the highest-achieving students. Of course, other factors such as cultural expectations and homogeneity could contribute to the difference.

In a 2011 report for the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, education policy analyst Matthew Chingos described small class size as a false promise. He noted at least 24 states had then implemented initiatives to reduce student-teacher ratios at a significant cost to taxpayers. And despite spending all that money, most states have seen very little improvement in student achievement in the past 10 years.

Chingos does not advocate abandoning efforts at class size reduction (CSR). But he argues educators should use them sparingly, where they’ll do the most good: “The fact that across-the-board CSR policies at the state or district level are not cost-effective does not mean that smaller classes should never be used, but rather that they should be reserved for use in special cases by individual schools.”

Associated Press/Photo by Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch Associated Press/Photo by Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch Alleged victims of former Ohio State University team doctor Richard Strauss at a Board of Trustees meeting Friday

Long-awaited justice

Sexual abuse victims of a now-deceased Ohio State University team doctor spoke out to the school’s trustees in a hearing last week.

Richard Strauss served Ohio State athletes and students as a team doctor and at his off-campus office for two decades, with only a single documented complaint from 1995. But a growing list of alumni have come forward in recent years alleging numerous incidents of sexual misconduct from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. Strauss committed suicide in 2005.

All of the athletes were male and described encounters with the doctor that included uncomfortable propositions and unnecessary groping—all under the guise of medical care. Many of the more than 150 plaintiffs in two separate lawsuits claimed they voiced their concerns to university staff but saw no follow-up from campus officials. The lawsuits against the university allege that more than 20 school officials and staff, including two athletic directors, knew of concerns about how Strauss treated young men but did not stop him.

Seven sexual abuse victims, three of whom spoke anonymously, gave statements to the board and university officials Friday. “I realize that all those years I have incubated the trauma,” said one former student identified as John Doe. “Many of my life’s decisions have been made with the heavy burden of this memory. … My life would have taken a completely different path, a path that would have been my choice. So the board must realize that the damage has been corrosive. It has burned its way through our lives.”

The university recently hired an outside firm to investigate the accusations after initially attempting to dismiss the lawsuits due to the amount of time since the alleged abuse.

The plaintiffs’ goal is “to encourage people that there is an avenue to have their story told, to help contribute to the fight to change this practice and this policy of indifference,” said Jack Landskroner, one of their attorneys. —Laura Edghill

Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen Virginia Tech President Tim Sands during a Nov. 13 announcement about the school’s new Innovation Campus

Education woos Amazon

In its winning bid to become the home of Amazon’s second headquarters, the state of Virginia added an interesting twist by promising to invest in high-tech education. Virginia Tech plans to open a $1 billion “Innovation Campus” near the new Amazon headquarters, and the state promised an additional $375 million to boost the number of tech-related master’s degrees at Virginia Tech and George Mason University. Some of the improvements were already in the works prior to Amazon’s announcement that it would open twin headquarters in New York and Northern Virginia, but the deal will accelerate the plans.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he hopes the Innovation Center will establish a vital talent pipeline for the expected 25,000 jobs at the new Amazon site in Arlington and help draw other high-tech employers to the area.

“Virginia’s proposal to Amazon represents a new model of economic development for the 21st century,” Northam said at a celebratory event last week. “The vast majority of the commonwealth’s proposal is investments in our people that will align with Amazon’s long-term goals.” —L.E.

Missing consent

Officials at a Florida high school are getting pushback after showing an explicit video about sexual consent without getting parental consent. The video, created by Planned Parenthood and shown to students at Pine View High School in Sarasota, included images of couples—including same-sex ones—kissing and controversial statements such as, “Asking for consent doesn’t have to be awkward. Asking for consent can be kind of sexy.”

The complaints rolled in via email, phone calls, and Facebook, according to Sarasota County School Board member Eric Robinson. In response, the district has suspended the curriculum until a full review can be conducted. The district and a local rape crisis center said the center staff member who made the presentation did not follow proper protocols, WFLA-TV in Sarasota reported.

Nearly all states require some form of parental consent for sex education in public schools. Vigilant parents should know their state law, as well as what curriculum their local school district uses and who provides it. Many districts use a Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) approach, which addresses consent in the context of making healthy decisions overall.

“When we move to a very minimalistic view of just whether or not consent has been requested and received, we ignore the overall benefit of and the need to put a strong, clear, skill-based message to help young people wait to have sex,” said Valerie Huber, a senior policy adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services and former CEO of Ascend, a national organization that champions the SRA approach and provides curriculum to schools. —L.E.

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Leigh Jones

Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.

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  • LK
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 10:07 am

    I'm surprised by the study on small class sizes which reports little if not benefit to smaller classes. Howver, test scores do not tell the whole story of a student's achievement. I teach high school history and English in a new Christian school. Class size makes little difference as far as teaching content, but in a very large class, discussion of ideas and of literature would become difficult because not everyone can participate fully. But teaching writing is the greatest problem in large classes. Last year I had five English students and five history students; this year I have 19 English students (divided between 2 classes) and 9 history students. I can tell you that the sheer increase in rough drafts to edit and final papers to grade is compromising my ability to give valuable and thorough comments as well as impacting my personal home life. For an English or history teacher in upper levels, smaller class sizes make all the difference for both the teacher and the students.

  •  Peter Allen's picture
    Peter Allen
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 07:30 pm

    Perhaps larger classes yet fewer with an added grading period during the day would make you more efficient all the way around..?? .  I have done some adult teaching, assisting, as well as classroom learning through masters.  My observation is the discussiion and interaction gets only better un to a breaking point of apx 25 students.  

  •  HRKendall's picture
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 08:35 pm

    As an early elementary educator, I disagree with the notion that the large class size doesn't matter much. The fact that other countries, (namely Asian countries where respect of adults is part of the culture) do fine with the larger classes is not a fair comparison. I heard another World article recently recommend that teachers just need to toughen up and have better classroom control and I literally laughed out loud. The youth we are raising today are entitled and some know no boundaries; many are neglected. Teaching is a huge responsibility that I imagine most educators take seriously. Speaking for myself, knowing my human limitations and desire to make a difference in a child's life, I would rather work with my lively group of 16 first graders, giving them as much attention as possible, than doubling that size as so many of the larger, consolidated schools are doing. I cannot believe this is the answer to our education problems today.

  • D
    Posted: Sat, 11/24/2018 11:25 pm

    As a former teacher, I'm not surprised at these results - there are many factors at play.  I found larger classes easier with respect to behavior management - students did not feel as tempted to wander the room or go talk to their friends when all the chairs were full, and distracted students stayed more on task when they were surrounded by many studious peers.  Not being able to get as much individual feedback from me, students in large classes were less reliant and would try longer to figure things out themselves, and help each other, and got practice teaching each other naturally.  That being said, it was harder to grade and give them meaningful assignments, though not impossible.