By John Fitzgerald, Minnesota 2020 Fellow, April guest blogger
There are many factors that create a quality education environment that maximizes each student’s ability to learn. I would argue that none is greater than class size.
Of course, the quality of the teacher in that classroom makes a huge difference. Supplying that teacher with the proper curriculum and tools to teach is important too. A student’s home life and the quality of his peers — both inside and outside the classroom — have an enormous effect.
But all things being equal, a student in a class with 40 other students and one teacher isn’t going to learn very much.
In late 2008, I sent a short survey out to science teachers across the state asking if class sizes have gone up and if so, what that did to the quality of science education. The majority said class sizes have gone from an average of 25 students per class in 2003-04 to an average of 30 students per class this year. They said science classes should have no more than 24 students. This was especially important in laboratory classes; The National Science Teachers Association recommends four students in a group, and adding more is a recipe for trouble when working with Bunsen burners, glassware, dissecting scalpels and needles.
More than 67 percent of the science teachers said overcrowding has caused the quality of science education in Minnesota to go down.
More than 72 percent blamed overcrowded classrooms on underfunding by the state government. Since 2003 when the state took over education funding, state aid has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent.
“We are all like gerbils on a treadmill trying to run faster with fewer resources, more kids, more testing, fewer computers per student for test prep and a huge change in community expectation over what schools should do about their children's education,” one teacher wrote.
Speaking of class sizes, there’s an excellent document that outlines what the optimal class sizes should be for classes preK-12. It’s called Investing In Our Future (PDF, 1.7 MB). It was commissioned by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and delivered in 2004. It was created by a blue-ribbon panel of educators who were asked to quantify a quality education.
“Investing in Our Future” is an intriguing document because it gives a solid, education-first examination of what Minnesota education should look like. It is remarkably thorough. Unfortunately, it has rarely been referenced in the halls of government. Gov. Pawlenty, Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke and her replacement, Commissioner Alice Seagren, have not used this document to help shape education policy. This is unfortunate, because it serves as an excellent starting point — if not an ending point — for education policy.
The group broke into three panels, each consisting of a district superintendent, a business manager, three principals — one from each level of schooling — and a classroom teacher from urban, suburban, and rural districts. Some panelists came from professional associations, but most were vetted by the Department of Education. The panels designed “adequate” instructional programs to meet Minnesota’s academic standards for prototypical elementary, middle, and high schools given a variety of student-need characteristics.
After the panels created a core curriculum and adjusted it for various levels of student ability (ELL, special education, high achievement, etc.) they offered suggested class sizes on page 58:
- Preschool 8 students to 1 teacher
- Kindergarten 8:1
- First Grade 16:1
- Second Grade 16:1
- Third Grade 16:1
- Fourth Grade 16:1
- Fifth Grade 16:1
- Sixth grade – Eighth grade 19:1; less for remediation; larger for band, vocal music, physical education
- Ninth grade – Twelfth Grade 26:1 which varies depending on band (larger) and some electives(smaller sizes)
This is why I find “Investing in Our Future” to be such a valuable document. Commissioned by our governor, created by our experts, it tells us what we already know — that class size does matter, that smaller classes are better than larger classes, and we owe it to our children to keep class sizes as low as possible.