The influx of federal funds to counter the impact of the pandemic presents a rare opportunity to address some of the most crucial learning needs present in schools today. However, since the funds have a life cycle and will not last forever, deciding where to spend the money deserves careful consideration. Equally important is maximizing the impact so that learning gains are significant and sustained.
Class size reduction appears to be among the popular options under consideration. On the surface, this option may seem to make sense. Teachers see smaller class sizes as reducing their workloads. The fact is that more students mean more work. Parents typically favor smaller class sizes assuming that with fewer students in the class, their child will receive more attention. Increased attention is a worthy desire. Administrators may see efforts to reduce class sizes as a simple way of responding to constituent interests without having to invest in training and manage significant disruption.
Yet, despite its popularity, class size reduction alone has not been shown to make much difference in the learning growth of students. In fact, it is among the most expensive options for improving learning outcomes, while also being among the least effective at moving learning forward. Let’s explore some of the reasons why.
First, if instruction of 15 students is delivered in the same manner as it is delivered to 30 students, learning outcomes in the smaller class will be substantially the same as in the larger class. Multiple research studies have shown that the instructional approach and the learning experience of students has a greater influence on learning outcomes than the number of students in the class, within reasonable limits. Of course, if class size reductions are paired with instructional strategies and learning experiences that take advantage of the opportunities smaller class sizes can offer, learning outcomes will likely be significantly larger. Increased opportunities for dialogue related to what students are learning, real time interventions during the learning process, responsiveness to learning readiness, and other strategies can make a big difference. Of course, many of these strategies can also be implemented in larger, but still reasonably sized classes.
Second, even if small improvements in learning outcomes are realized, they tend not to be sustainable, especially beyond the first few grades. In the few studies that have demonstrated marginal growth solely by reducing class sizes, the growth typically has not been sustained in subsequent years. One study conducted several years ago in Tennessee demonstrated learning increases associated with smaller class sizes that were sustained, but replications of the study have had difficulty generating the same results. Since the COVID-related federal funds will not continue in perpetuity, choosing an option that will not have a long-term impact seems suspect.
Third, with a reduction in class sizes comes the need for additional teachers to support the increased number of classes created. During times when a large supply of high quality, experienced teachers is available, this challenge may be overcome. However, most areas of the country are experiencing a shortage of teachers and significant reductions in enrollment in teacher education programs. It is not realistic to place under-qualified and inexperienced teachers in classrooms, even with fewer students, and expect that learning outcomes will improve. Of course, it might be possible to redesign the way in which teaching staff is assigned to provide ongoing support and mentoring to inexperienced staff, but any significant payoff is not likely to be seen until after the federal funds have expired. Additionally, if new funds are not available to replace the expiring federal funds, many of the newly hired teachers will likely have to be let go and class sizes will return to pre-COVID funding levels.
So, what are some options to consider as investments for the federal funds that might be combined with or used to supplement smaller class sizes to create a greater impact? Here are a few examples:
- Offer targeted tutoring to accelerate student skill development.
- Provide teachers with flexibility to focus on learning needs over pre-set instructional pacing requirements.
- Offer opportunities for teachers to learn and develop strategies to increase student engagement despite larger class sizes.
- Provide teachers with training, time, and other supports for greater instructional collaboration and strategy sharing.
- Provide teachers with more flexibility in scheduling and assignments to support increases in planning and reflection.
- Offer “grade bands” over narrow, age-based grade levels and curriculum that fail to meet the needs and readiness of many students.
- Offer teachers options to increase their compensation in exchange for skill acquisition and leadership roles.
The bottom line: Unless the experience of learning changes for students, we should not expect changes in outcomes. Being in a smaller class may offer opportunities for improved learning but learning only improves if instructional approaches are more impactful and learning experiences are enriched.