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Dr. Grauer's Column - What’s the Optimal Class Size? April Fools!

What’s the Optimal Class Size? April Fools!

Yesterday, current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, in an attempt to justify a budget that would cut federal education spending by more than 10 percent, made a claim that stopped me in my tracks: Our Secretary of Education claimed students may be better served by being in larger classes. She explained that by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.

If you’re like me, you chalked it up to April Fool’s Day, and started searching the web for cross-verification. Already around 50% of American public school employees are admin/staff who don’t even teach, they are part of the bureaucracy—a percentage that would pique the disbelief of any independent school leader. But research confirmed that I read correctly—a U.S. Secretary of Education suggested to Congress that our education system could benefit from having fewer teachers in our classrooms.

Mo H. '21, Selah S. '21, and Sara M. '21 performing their original song at Grauer's Originals Café Night - March 28, 2019

Teachers are used to being asked to do more with less, but this is a step beyond. As it is, states are struggling to find enough teachers to simply fill vacancies. What’s more, I’ve never met a teacher who wanted larger classes or more federal controls. Here is a chart of class sizes I have developed for your reference:

    1 -3          Tutoring
    4 -14        Socratic/Small class
    15 – 20    Small-medium class
    20-30       Medium sized class
    31+          Large class or lectures

Teachers with medium and large classes often naturally divide their classes into sections of two or three to create a setting for collaborative learning. Students in small-medium classes have more teacher attention but cannot have a seminar environment where everyone can be expected to be accountable and present. Distractions increase as we add students. Attention spans wane as students are farther than 12 feet from the teacher, and there are fewer opportunities for active participation above the Socratic class levels. Additional classroom rules and regulations necessary as classes grow larger impact creativity, limit individuality, and supplant the primacy of authentic human discourse. 

The Oxford Center for Staff and Learning Development found that, “in the case of led groups, as for academic discussion, the maximum number for member satisfaction according to students (NUS 1969) is 10 to 12.”

Most research on class size shows the smallest groups perform better. Seven of the top 25 schools on the 2011 Newsweek’s, “America’s Best High schools” have student to teacher ratios of less than 15—considering the very few schools with classes this small, this data is astonishing if not alarming.

Grauer junior Kai S. '20 displaying his medal after finishing in 1st place in his bodyboarding surf division, with coaches Brian Dugan and Chris Ahrens - March 31, 2019

It is hard to get research on optimal class size since so few schools afford Socratic class sizes, hence, there are not always enough sample groups. We have a great deal of research, however, on group size in general.  Consider Edward Hall’s fascinating read, “Beyond Culture”:

Fortunately, something is known both empirically and scientifically about the influence exerted by size on groups and the effect of size on how the groups perform. Research with business groups, athletic teams, and even armies around the world has revealed there is an ideal size for a working group. This ideal size is between eight and 12 individuals. This is natural, because man evolved as a primate while living in small groups…Eight to 12 persons can know each other well enough to maximize their talents. In groups beyond this size, the possible combinations of communication between individuals get too complex to handle; people are lumped into categories and begin the process of ceasing to exist as individuals. … Participation and commitment fall off in larger groups — mobility suffers; leadership doesn’t develop naturally but is manipulative and political.

Larry Cuban at Stanford presented research showing that student performance did not improve significantly until classes fell under roughly 15 students, i.e., Socratic, and did not get much worse until they rose above 30. This highlights a pervasive fallacy in class size research as we normally find it. Some studies have concluded that smaller classes don’t matter enough, when in fact those studies have not studied truly small classes, much less Socratic ones. For instance, imagine a study compares class sizes of 30 to those of 25, finds no significant differences, and concludes that smaller classes do not matter. 

Grauer senior Julia D. '19 reinforcing the principles of Physics through an indoor skydiving adventure with her class - April 2, 2019

Another key issue is that researchers normally measure class size effectiveness based upon standardized test results in math and language arts.  When we do this, we fail to account for some of the most profound benefits of smaller classes: character and personality development, creativity, connectedness and engagement, safety, and much more. The Grauer School’s head-turning High School Survey of Student Engagement results, detailed in other columns, make a great case study for the extraordinary power of class sizes of less than 15, authentic Socratic classes.

True, we can’t always afford the optimal, but the study of it must never cease. If you’ve had a great conversation lately, you know that there are a great many variables that contribute. The gathering of groups that number 12, however, is ancient and archetypal. What about a school where class was like a safe place where students can “sit down to dinner?”  …where the whole point is development of trusted connections necessary to refine our thoughts and ideas more deeply, to focus on empathy?

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