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When To Draw The Line with Class Size at Public Schools

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Asa student at a large public school, I’ve sat in many different types of classes. I’ve listened to non-interactive lectures, done lab activities, and listened to other students teach the class. But throughout my high school years, I am the most intellectually stimulated in my smaller classes. Take my English class last year, for example. With only sixteen students in the room, our conversations are so much more personal and intensive. The whole class is exploring the topic — I can’t mentally wander because there’s too much to debate.

Being in this class has taught me that students need their voices to be heard in the classroom.

We need to feel comfortable enough to speak up, and this requires a few things: an understanding teacher, engaged classmates, and a little curiosity. But what happens when that academic environment keeps students quiet thanks to overcrowding in the academic setting?

Overcrowding is an issue that confronts many larger public schools. While there is a legally-mandated size for classrooms — a 1:20 ratio — that ratio gets distorted through the difference in class size of mandatory versus elective classes. The mandatory classes are often overfilled, containing thirty-five to forty students in classes that are meant to have at maximum thirty. Meanwhile, the elective classes, meant to be conducted in a more familiar setting, can have less than twenty students each, thus ensuring that the school’s ratio is under the legal limit.

Sowhy is this a disadvantage for students? Studies have shown that students learn better in much smaller class sizes. A study from the National Education Policy Center looked at the effectiveness of class size reductions and examined the Tennessee Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) experiment. This study found that smaller classes “performed substantially better in second grade in test scores, grades, and fewer disciplinary referrals.” In short, this reduction was effective in addressing many parents' and students’ educational concerns. Plus, the study noted that a smaller class size most benefited minority and disadvantaged students. Therefore, more individualized attention could narrow the racial achievement gap and make students within the racial minority feel more included in a higher-level class setting.

The data seems clear. However, some may question whether an updated policy may be feasible to implement. It’s true that a change in class-size policy would require a large increase in funding in order to adequately pay the teachers — and this would also include the development of teacher training in order to make sure that there are enough new teachers to meet this demand. But realistically, the creation of more teacher’s jobs benefits the entire society, with more well-educated, caring adults.

Addressing this problem seems relatively straightforward. To properly tackle this problem though, when determining the ratio of students to teachers, policymakers need to consider more qualitative information and perhaps should impose a different ratio for elective classes than mandatory classes. By proposing a cap of students per core class, the school system should be able to fix this issue and give back the importance to those classes by encouraging debate and engagement. And when we answer this issue, I firmly believe that we will be able to see the results rippling through the system, from a smaller racial achievement gap to more high-achieving, empathetic young adults.