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CSEM’s surprising finding on class size could help drive public dialogue

CSEM’s surprising finding on class size could help drive public dialogue
November 11
14:34 2020

By John Railey

The Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County school system is at a crucial crossroads, with the resignation of the new superintendent after 14 months on the job, increasing the challenges wrought by the pandemic. As the school board searches for a new superintendent, one likely consideration will be the applicants’ thoughts on class sizes. A surprising initial finding by researchers from Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility could help drive that public dialogue, especially in these pandemic days.

“We find that average class size significantly predicts both N.C. elementary and middle school performance. However, the estimates suggest that higher average class size is negatively related to elementary school performance, but positively related to middle school performance,” CSEM Research Fellows James Etim and Alice Etim and CSEM Research Manager Zach Blizard write in “Class Size and School Performance: An Analysis of Middle and Elementary Schools,” published recently by the International Journal on Studies in Education. James Etim, professor of education, and Alice Etim, professor of management information systems, led the research. 

The initial finding on middle-school class sizes is counterintuitive. Conventional wisdom holds that the smaller the class size, the better for students. Parents, local educators and elected officials, both locally and legislatively, have long-sought smaller class sizes with limited success, in large part because smaller classes mean incurring the cost of finding and hiring qualified teachers and building more classrooms.

Several educators interviewed for this story were surprised by the finding, and said that there are nuances and more study is needed. The researchers agree in their paper with the need for more study. But their initial work is food for thought, both in terms of the eventual return to conventional classes and the current norm of Zoom classes. 

“In 2018, the average middle school class contained around 23 students, and the average elementary school class contained around 19.1 students,” according to the study. “In 2017, the average middle school class contained around 23.4 students, and the average elementary school class contained around 19.7 students.”

The study used North Carolina School Report Cards datasets for 2017 and 2018. The key finding: In 2018, the analysis showed that “A” middle schools (middle schools that earned performance scores equivalent to an A) had average class sizes of around 27.08 students, in contrast to “F” middle schools (middle schools that earned performance scores equivalent to an F in 2018), which had average class sizes of around 19.40 students. 

Karen Roseboro, an area superintendent with the school system, said in an email that increasing class sizes “depends on the effectiveness of teachers.” She provided a link, https://www.opportunityculture.org/reach/class-size-increases-remote/, that she noted “discusses remote learning and the positive impact of reaching more students with highly effective teachers.”

Tripp Jeffers, a history and philosophy teacher at Parkland High School in Winston-Salem and the former president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, said that Zoom teaching for large classes can be problematic. “All the students can’t fit on the same screen,” he said. In general, he said, “the benefit to smaller class sizes is providing a differential to students with different needs, providing individual attention to students, and when you have larger classes, those things are more likely to go out the window.”

Marilyn Parker, a member of the local school board, said there is a nuance to the issue. Often, she said, when the state legislature mandated smaller class sizes in elementary schools, they ended funding for assistants. “You got lower class sizes, but you got less manpower. That has been the thing all around. That’s a variable that is worth thinking about and looking at.”

She said the verdict is still out on Zoom classes. “Apparently, students collaborating in small groups, that works pretty well. The virtual world is not a bad thing. I think it’s so important for students to not get in a silo. They need to collaborate with a teacher, with other students.”

Regarding class size in general, she said, “I guess what we would need would depend on the needs of the students. Working with students struggling already, I would think it would be to their advantage to be in a smaller group with a teacher. Maybe the needs are not as great when you have students on grade level.”

The researchers found that, for 2018, there was not a clear pattern for elementary schools, with “A” schools having average class sizes of around 19.31 students and “F” schools having average class sizes of around 19.33 students. Studies from other school districts nationwide have shown that higher average class sizes are negatively related to elementary school performance.

Donny Lambeth, a state legislator and former chairman of the local school board, said that “Clearly, it seems elementary kids, as they are trying to adjust to some structure and social adjustments, need more supervision and smaller class sizes or an extra teacher assistant. By the time they are in middle school, they have adjusted to the rigor of an academic setting. However, at that point academics does get harder and kids at that age start to socialize more and have outside school activities. So it seems smaller class sizes would be an advantage.”

Lida Calvert-Hayes, a school board member, also supports smaller class sizes. “Some students can get it and do very well by themselves,” she said. “But some may need some help, whether in middle school or elementary school.”

In the International Journal story, the CSEM researchers write that their findings suggest smaller class sizes could be beneficial in North Carolina elementary schools and should continue. Their finding regarding North Carolina middle schools is “a bit more controversial,” they write.

“This result does not mesh as well with the literature, like our elementary school findings do. Considering the surprising nature of these results, we feel it unwise to conclude that they offer evidence in favor of larger classes in N.C. middle school,” they write. More research and data is needed, they write.

Their initial finding on middle-school class sizes could spur public dialogue that leads to that research.

To read the International Journal story, go to https://www.wssu.edu/academics/colleges-and-departments/college-of-arts-sciences-business-education/center-for-study-of-economic-mobility/our-research/csem-faculty-fellow-publications.html, scroll down to the story and click on it. 

John Railey, raileyjb@nullgmail.com, is the writer-in-residence for CSEM.

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