CLASS SIZE AND ROCORI DISTRICT
When the issue of academic performance is discussed, one topic that is almost always certain to be part of the discussion is the number of students in a given classroom—or “class size.” A very simple comparison that is often used between school districts or school settings is the average class size.
Generally, it is assumed that smaller class sizes are associated with better academic performance. I would like to use this week’s space to look at the issue of class size—particularly about how it plays out in the ROCORI School District.
The common perception about class size is that the smaller the class size, the better the environment must be in the classroom. This does make sense because fewer students would seem to allow more personal attention and more direct interaction with the teacher. There are also fewer opportunities for disruption, off-task time, or questions from others.
There is some validity to these issues, but education research doesn’t indicate the impact is quite as strong as most believe. Obviously, the “best” educational setting would be a one-on-one (teacher to student) situation. This is a very low class size, of course, and is not very realistic in our society.
Beyond the one-to-one setting, a “small group” is often an effective setting. This would likely be something less than six students. A group larger than six might as well range in size into the mid-teens—fifteen or sixteen students.
After a classroom size reaches about 16 students, much of the class size literature and research indicates (depending on the age of students) that there is not a great deal of difference in classroom performance based on student number until about 30 students.
FACTORS AFFECTING PERFORMANCE
There are a number of factors that can have a significant effect on classroom performance. The overall classroom environment, the effectiveness of the classroom teacher, the quality of the instructional resources, support offered to the classroom, the influence of family and socio-economic background, previous educational experiences, and many other issues impact student learning.
Much of the research indicates that the most significant factor in student performance boils down to the quality of the instructor. As a district, we believe in the quality of our instructors and agree with the research that the teacher is the single most important factor in an effective classroom. Even so, class size is also a factor.
Although there is information showing that class size does not have as much of an impact on student performance as our perceptions would suggest, we do believe that there is cause for monitoring and being attentive to class size. Knowing that many factors affect student performance, efforts to keep the class sizes as reasonable as possible is a priority for our school district.
POLICY GUIDES CLASS SIZE
In the ROCORI School District, we have a class size policy that guides our practices and processes. Our policy is based on the overall idea that a smaller class size is desirable—especially at the lower age ranges.
The policy, however, does acknowledge that there is not a precise number at any level that is ideal because most of our expected class sizes are built on a range of students. It also recognizes that the older the students get, the less prescriptive the range needs to be.
Our class size policy shows the expectation that our lowest class sizes should be in the primary age classes. Kindergarten classes are expected to be at 17-20 students. First grade, by policy, should be 19-22 students. Second and third grade should be in the 24 to 27 student range. Fourth and fifth grade should be 26 to 29 students per clssroom.
At the secondary level, grades six through twelve, have a different structure. At the secondary level we have the expectation that classes will be between 15 and 30 students in range. While this is a fairly broad range, the core principle is that we do not expect classes to be exceptionally small (less than 15) nor do we expect them to be exceptionally large (more than 30).
Even within that, we understand that there are some classes that are likely to be outside the size boundaries. Band, choir, physical education, and some other courses are likely to have enrollment higher than the 30 students. Those, by nature, are expected to be larger and the spaces in which they operate can typically handle the larger size.
Our policy also indicates that, for economic reasons or in periods of economic challenge, the class sizes may be adjusted by as much as 20%. Although it is not our desire, then, a kindergarten class (or classes) might be 24 students (20% overage of 20 students) in times of financial difficulty. A secondary class could be in the 36 student range for financial reasons.
As a district, we work hard to follow the expectations of our policy. We do not like to see classes that have a size exceeding the policy—especially the “overage” numbers based on financial concerns. It is a good situation when we are able to have class sections that fall under the range expressed in policy—although being too much under might also indicate concerns!
When our budgets and yearly plans are developed, one of the things to which we pay very close attention is enrollment—overall and at each grade level. We look at the current setting, project into the next year, and examine issues related to the projections. It is sometimes difficult to be extremely precise, but the projections serve as a great guide to how we staff and allocate resources.
We also try to regularly compare our class sizes (both the policy expectations and our actual class size as students are assigned) to those of our neighbors and comparable schools. We know that we are not able to have class size as small as parochial or private schools but we do want to be competitive with our neighbors. We are very proud of the fact that all of our comparisons show our sizes to be very favorable in our region.
CHALLENGES REGARDING CLASS SIZE
The past few years have been very challenging in relation to issues of class size. Our financial issues have imposed some limitations on our ability to adjust class sizes. We have been fortunate to have many of our classes at the policy description or lower, but there have been some cases where we have not been able to add sections to reduce size in the manner we would like because we simply could not be good fiscal stewards by adding the sections.
The overall size of a grade level can also present some challenges. Some of our grade levels have been at a size that doesn’t “divide” (mathematically) very nicely. Purely to illustrate, if a grade level has 100 students, three sections of classes would put us at classes of 33, 33 and 34—above our policy in normal situations. Four sections of the class would put us at equal sections of 25. Depending on the grade level, that may be smaller than we would expect the size to be. That presents a challenge for budget and staffing purposes.
With this as background, we always have some situations that we monitor. The issues are complicated by a number of factors. In another article, I will walk through the class size issues during the current school year as we look forward to the development of our budget for 2016-17.