The Disappearance Of Small Classes

Most schools boast small, effective student to faculty ratios. Smaller classes give students more one-on-one time with faculty members, increasing the value of their education. But, the economic downturn is dramatically increasing the size of classes at all levels.

            Justin Snider, an undergraduate professor of writing at Columbia University, wrote a guest column in The Washington Post stating that schools can no longer afford small classes.

            Snider cited California’s 1996 decision to launch a state-wide, class-size reduction program that planned to reward districts and schools for capping classes in grades k-3 at 20 students. The measure is estimated to have cost the state at least $20 billion.

            California was not the only state to spend billions on decreasing class sizes. Funds were mostly irrelevant in the late 90s, only school improvements seemed to matter. States and districts could continually show small student improvement through these efforts. However, current students are beginning to pay the price for these hasty decisions.

            These efforts were based on the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project conducted in Tennessee. It compared low-income students’ achievement in classes of 13-17 students with similar students in classes of 22-25 students. This study showed miniscule academic achievements for low-income students in smaller classes.

            Politicians ran with this study, claiming that this could reduce the gap between low-income students and wealthy students. However, they could not mimic the exact circumstances of the Tennessee study.

            States – most notably California – went to desperate measures to decrease class sizes. The state hired nearly 21,000 teachers overnight, pulling teachers from wherever they could find them. California hired what they could get, and most of these teachers did not have the appropriate credentials. The number of uncertified teachers in the mid to late 90s dramatically increased from 1 in 50 to 1 in 7. Then, low-income students were much more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers than middle-class or affluent students were.

            Florida has experienced similar circumstances. It has spent an estimated $16 billion on class-size reduction since 2002.  To continue this measure, Florida’s taxpayers will have to pay an extra $353 million this year.

            Money is slowly fading from states’ budgets, and class sizes are beginning to slowly increase. Parents and administrators are still calling for smaller classes, but politicians’ are running out of options.

            Snider argues that teacher quality is much more important than class size. He states that class size can affect students’ learning at the extremes, but slight decreases of five students or so do not matter.

            Snider concludes his argument by stating that politicians need to invest more money in teacher quality than class size. Snider used Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder of The Equity Project Charter School in New York City, as an example. Vanderhoek’s teachers are the highest paid public educators in the country, earning at least $125,000 per year. Vanderhoek is able to pay his teachers so well because he decided that it would be more beneficial for the students to have the best educators with 30-student class sizes instead of 20.