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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Perspectives / Why Think Small?

      The year my 6th grade class learned the word “pelvis” was the year our teacher fell and broke hers. That word may have been the extent of our academic learning that year. A series of substitute teachers tried to assume control of our class of 52, which was housed in an annex, formerly a sewing room. The “sewing room kids” soon acquired a reputation, which followed us through the 8th grade. The size of our class was just one of our problems. We were “hard to handle” and had to be treated accordingly.
      The smallest class I experienced took place during my senior year of college. With about seven other English majors, I enrolled in an in-depth study of Spenser's The Faerie Queene. In such a class, you had to have done the reading; you had to be ready for discussion. In a group of eight, anonymity is impossible. Unfortunately, some would say, so is Spenser's Faerie Queene. Did the size of my class make the content more memorable? I would have to say, Not much. Small class size matters, but, as in the case of a large class, it is not the only factor affecting lifelong learning.
      If each of us recalled the smallest and largest classes that we participated in as a student and as a teacher, chances are that the anecdotal evidence alone would convince us that small classes are superior when it comes to learning. But we have a great deal more than anecdotal evidence. The research conclusions about the issues of class size are as clear-cut as any in education. Professors Bruce J. Biddle and David C. Berliner describe the studies in a major research synthesis supported by the Rockefeller Foundation (p. 12).
      Small class size has the greatest benefits, they tell us, in the first three years of school and for students with little early preparation for school. Longitudinal studies show that students whose classes were small (15–20 students) in the early grades retained their gains in standard-size classrooms through high school. All types of students gain from small classes in the early grades, but students who have traditionally been disadvantaged in education profit more. Despite some studies that show teachers do not dramatically vary their instructional techniques in small classes, teachers say that small classes enable them to personalize learning for students (see Holloway, p. 91).
      As for school size, that, too, is something that researchers have studied exhaustively. Students in small schools (400–600 students) earn higher grades, come to class more often, participate in more extracurricular activities, and are less likely to drop out than those who attend larger schools. Teachers are more satisfied with their jobs in small schools and collaborate with one another more. When cost is measured per graduate rather than per attendee, small schools are more efficient than large schools. (Viadero, 2001)
      Why is small size so beneficial? In the case of both small classes and small schools, smallness is associated with “relational accountability” (Wagner, 2001). Teachers and students get to know one another, feel less anonymous, and learn to trust each other and work together.
      Tom Vander Ark, the director of education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, named “seven deadly sins of education.” Number one on his list—before imprudent use of standardized tests and complacency—was “anonymity of large schools and dehumanizing systems.”Big comprehensive high schools don't work for most students—especially economically disadvantaged students of color—yet we continue to build them. In light of high expectations for all students, growing diversity, and the potential of new technology, there is simply no excuse to ignore the most conclusive evidence in the field: Small schools foster achievement by all. (2000)
      Why, then, if experience and research tell us that large size can be detrimental and small size can be helpful, do we drag our feet about lowering class size and creating smaller schools?
      We fail to seize on solutions that work because we continue to search for the one and only way to increase achievement scores on tests. Small size is not a panacea, all the researchers warn, and to produce success, we must also provide quality teaching and engage our students in learning. These ingredients have an even more direct impact than does small size. But is that any reason to abandon strategies that create an environment conducive to achievement and well-being—where kids are more likely to learn and to like learning?

      Vander Ark, T. (2000). The seven deadly sins of education [On-line]. Available:www.publiceducation.org/news/sevensins.htm.

      Viadero, D. (2001). Smaller is better. Education Week, 21(13), 28–30.

      Wagner, T. (2001). The case for ‘new village’ schools. Education Week, 21(14), 56.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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