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Sizing Up Class Size: Why Smaller Is Better

Searching for the right school for your child can be an overwhelming task. Does the school have a good reputation? What is its safety record? How qualified are the teachers and staff? How many students are there, and what are they like?

And what about all the buzz on class size? Is class size really important? Experts say yes, and here’s why:

Individualized Attention

In smaller classes, children receive individualized attention directly from teachers, which is particularly beneficial for kids with attention deficit or learning disabilities. Most parents who have teens with learning or behavioral issues know their kids are intelligent and capable. They also know these children can “get lost in the shuffle” in a traditional academic setting with 20-30 other kids of all backgrounds and abilities. In small group settings, teachers have the time to assess a student’s problems, learning difficulties, or attention issues early on and can not only recommend appropriate action but also ensure results are achieved.

When a child struggles in public school, parents often seek out one-on-one or small group tutoring, precisely because of the advantages of individualized attention. When a student believes a teacher is invested in his success and well-being, he feels valuable, worthy and confident in his abilities.

Academic Improvement

Research suggests that small class size results in higher academic achievement. These academic gains generally occur when class size is reduced to less than 20 students. Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), a massive, controlled study conducted in the 1980s by the State Department of Education, catalogued the positive effects of small class size on student achievement in all subject areas. With results published in the American School Boards Journal and featured in many periodicals since, the authors noticed drastic improvements in a child’s education when class size decreased.

The STAR research as well as a smaller study done in North Carolina suggest that the main benefits occur in the first year a student is in a small class and generally are sustained in subsequent years. A follow-up study found that students assigned to small classes graduated on schedule at a higher rate (76%) than students from regular classes (64%) and completed school with an honors diploma more often (45%) than students from regular classes (29%). Assignment to smaller classes also resulted in a decrease in teen pregnancy rates among some groups.

Since smaller classes foster greater academic engagement, they also lead to lower dropout rates. A statistical analysis using data from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that graduation rates were consistently highest when student-teacher ratios were lowest. Children in small classes also were less likely to be “held back” a grade and had fewer disciplinary problems and issues with school crime and violence.

Positive Impact on Teachers

Teachers who are equipped with the right tools and the right setting do a better job. Evidence suggests teachers generally have better morale in a small class and are less likely to feel overwhelmed by overseeing a variety of students with different backgrounds and achievement levels. As a result, they are more likely to provide a supportive environment where students are comfortable expressing themselves and actively participating in class.

Some studies have found that small classes allow teachers to spend more time on instruction and less on classroom management. In a smaller, quieter environment, there is more accountability for actions. Students learn how to function more effectively as members and leaders of groups and are encouraged to offer opinions. With fewer students in the class, children develop more meaningful interactions with others, improve human relations, and have greater regard for others.

In addition, smaller classes allow more interaction between teachers and individual students, increased communication with parents, and greater monitoring of student progress and behavior. The logistics of a small class mean fewer interruptions from children asking for clarification or falling behind, quieter classrooms with less opportunity to act out, and more homework since the teacher has time to thoroughly review and grade assignments.

Small-class teachers have reported being able to rely less on testing to assess a child’s progress and more on portfolio assessments and classroom projects. Teachers in small classes can cover basic curriculum faster and in greater depth, allowing time to cover additional material. In addition, they use more supplementary materials and enrichment activities and encourage children to engage in firsthand learning. If a child fails to respond to one teaching method, the teacher can employ other instructional approaches geared toward the individual child’s abilities and interests. For students that tend toward more creative and divergent thinking processes, small class size is essential.

Evidence suggests students in small classes also are more motivated. Students tend to pay attention in class, complete assignments on time, and cooperate with other children. They take initiative with homework and ask questions to get more information. Numerous reports indicate that small-class students are less likely to be disruptive, passive, or withdrawn. These findings have led experts to conclude that both the immediate and long-term benefits of small classes occur because students are better engaged.

Is Boarding School Better?

Although many public schools have taken part in initiatives across the country to reduce class size, private therapeutic boarding schools remain unmatched in class size. Most boarding school Web sites boast about the small ratio of students to teachers. In fact, at many schools, the average class size is as low as 8-10 students.

These schools offer a complete education, one that addresses the unique issues of each student and respects both their abilities and their differences. Because no two children are treated alike, your child will receive a top-notch, individualized education plan that is specifically designed for her. Teens who attend these schools can make remarkable progress in all areas of their lives, enabling them to return home with a renewed sense of self and strong character.

Of course, small class size alone doesn’t guarantee a good education. The quality of the teaching, the size of the school, the amount of parent involvement, and other factors are important as well. But given the vast research and support for small class size, the student-teacher ratio certainly should be a priority when researching schools for your child.