A report from the Southern Regional Education Board suggests states should strive for small classroom sizes even in a tough economy with tight budgets.
While research shows students perform better in small classrooms, especially in kindergarten through third grade, shrinking the class size is among the most expensive education initiatives for a state.
Across the nation, state departments of education fund schools based on enrollment, which means teachers are hired according to the number of students enrolled. As the funding formula changes and money is decreased, it results in more students in each classroom.
For example, an elementary school with 200 second-graders might get funded for seven teachers. That would mean classes would be about 28 students per teacher. Education officials agree that such a ratio negatively impacts the learning process as one-on-one attention becomes nearly impossible.
The report notes that reducing average class size by even one student could cost the nation more than $10 billion per year.
Florida spent nearly $22 billion in a nine-year period in an effort to reduce class size statewide.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s state policies limited the number of students in public classrooms. The K-12 student-teacher ratio dropped during two decades by nearly three students in southern states and by two students nationally.
In more recent years, states abandoned those polices to a large degree as they’ve had to weigh cost effectiveness in lean times. About a third of all states, including those in the South, permit waivers to provide flexibility.
Locally, educators strive to keep class sizes down, agreeing that students simply fare better in all aspects of classroom performance when there’s fewer of them.
“Our school system has had a strong commitment to keeping class size down for a number of years,” said Florence schools Superintendent Janet Womack. “It’s no surprise that this would be the finding in that report.”
The state of Alabama recommends 18 students to one teacher in grades kindergarten through third; 26 to one in grades fourth through sixth and 29 to one in seventh grade and higher.
“We’re pretty much below those numbers in all our classes, despite growing enrollment,” Womack said. “When we see we’re headed toward larger classes, we try to add a class. We won’t sacrifice student learning because we don’t have the number of teachers we need.”
Womack said the reason small class size is vital is simple: there’s more individual attention for each student.
Last year the school district added three teachers for seventh and eighth grades when enrollment rose unexpectedly.
“When you have a smaller class size, teachers can deliver the kind of instruction that’s needed for interactive and project-based learning, and sacrificing that process isn’t an option,” she said.
The Southern Regional Education Board’s report, “Smart Class-Size Policies for Lean Times,” reviews research on the impact of class size on student performance. It details how states measure class size and relates recent changes to class-size policy in southern states. It also includes a state-by-state table, by grade level, of class-size caps. Alabama no longer mandates class-size caps and hasn’t in well over a decade.
Susan Hall, the curriculum director for Russellville City Schools remembers the days of class caps in Alabama and said the 18-students per teacher for early elementary grades was ideal.
“We saw the difference it made,” Hall said. “In those lower grades, especially, there’s a big difference. They read better, test better, do everything better because those teachers have had more one-on-one time. It particularly makes a big difference in kindergarten because children experience so many firsts in school.”
But educators admit that in a day when the state funds a limited number of teachers and locally funded teacher positions are fewer than ever, it’s difficult to achieve a small class size.
Florence is the exception with about 40 locally funded teacher units.
“We’ve been good stewards of the money in this district and the decision was made long ago to protect instruction,” Womack said. “That’s what our community expects. They expect the best education for their tax dollars and a big part of delivering that top education involves keeping the class sizes down.”
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.