As educators, I believe that most of us would prefer fewer students to teach than a larger amount. We might feel that we can give more personal student attention, maintain better control and have less papers to grade. In addition, we may assume that students would have greater opportunities to thrive if there were not as much competition. But, what do the studies suggest?
I recently listened to a fascinating interview with Malcolm Gladwell about “Desirable Difficulties”. One of the subjects he discusses is class size. Without quoting a source, he stated that smaller student/teacher ratio brings “great success” in learning. However, there is an inverted bell curve to this situation. Fewer than 20 students in a classroom actually can have a negative effect on learning. Some reasons stated were that there are not enough students for rich classroom discussions, one child can dominate the room and, if a student is struggling, he has no peer to struggle along with.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is a forum of 34 democratic governments and 70 non-member countries promoting economic growth, prosperity and sustainable development, studied varying class sizes around the world. What they found is that there is a perception that smaller class size positively effects learning which might influence where parents choose to send their children to school. Class size varied from fewer than 20 students in some countries to about 50 students per class in China! Generally, class size was smaller in primary school (averaging around 23-32 students) and increased as the years went on.
Between 2000 and 2009, many countries invested resources to decrease class size. However, this had only a marginal effect on improved student performance. It was found that a significant decrease in pupils (7-10 fewer students per class) had some long-term positive effects when done in the earliest grades and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds. In addition, smaller class size had a positive impact if there was an inexperienced or ineffective teacher or for teachers who were responsible for struggling students. The reduction of students gave the teacher greater opportunity to hone in on her skills, become a more qualified educator and give greater support for challenged learners.
My research found that the one consistent factor for improved student success was teacher’s competence, which often went hand in hand with better salaries. Increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in the U.S. by one student would save approximately $12 billion per year. Perhaps we can allocate this savings to the teachers, thereby providing more incentive for talented educators to come back to the classroom and bring greater productivity to the future of our country.
What do you think? Do you have personal experiences with varying class size and student learning? Is an increased teacher salary enough enticement to bring excellence back into our schools? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
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