Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Small Schools Might Be Better For Students Than Small Classes

Maureen Yoder addresses students at the School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee.

Maureen Yoder addresses students at the School of Arts and Sciences in Tallahassee.

The School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) in Tallahassee has just over 300 students, and the waiting list to get in is much longer.

Maureen Yoder is one of the founders of the 15-year-old K-8 charter school.

“We started this school with the intent of keeping it small because we want to create a school family,” Yoder says. “We believe that the relationship between the teacher and the students is the primary reason students succeed – besides a good home base.”

This is sixth grader Mary Stafford’s first year.

“I think I’ll stay. I didn’t want to at the beginning of the year. I wanted to go to a bigger school.”

Mary’s elementary school had 1,000 kids. Instead of moving on to a traditional middle school with her friends, her mom convinced her to try something different. “She liked the fact that it was small because you get one on one help, and she also liked all the teachers and their way of teaching.”

It’s been 12 years since Florida voters passed the class size amendment, limiting the number of students in certain classes, depending on the grade:

PreK – 3rd: 18

4th – 8th: 22

9th – 12th – 25

Now, an analysis by government watchdog Florida Taxwatch finds that small classes do make a difference in outcomes for kids in kindergarten through 3rd grade – but not in higher grades. The report’s author, Bob Nave, says the state is better off focusing on smaller schools, like SAS, rather than small classes.

“It’s fairly common sense that smaller classes should result in improved student performance,” Nave says. “The problem is the research just doesn’t back that up.”

The group compiled research showing students in smaller schools do better in math and reading, have fewer behavior problems, and participate in more extracurricular activities. They’re also more likely to graduate.

Nave says the state was actually on a path toward having smaller schools in 2000, when the Florida Legislature passed a law limiting the size of new schools under construction.  Then, the class size amendment passed.

“The Legislature was forced not only to fund small schools, but now they had to fund small classes,” Nave says. “When one looks at the amount of money that was projected for school construction, it became clear that the Legislature could not do both.”

So lawmakers repealed the school size law to focus on class size.

Overall, the research on the effectiveness of small classes is mixed. “There are some studies that say yes, smaller classes do definitely improve academic outcomes, but there are other studies that show that it really has no effect at all,” says Kathleen McGrory, Miami Herald education reporter.  “Here in Florida, we’ve seen slow and steady improvement in student test scores since 2002, but it’s really hard to draw any conclusions from that. The standards have changed; the tests have changed. So it’s really hard to make an apple to apples comparison.”

While the Taxwatch report says the state has nothing to show for its $30 billion investment in small class sizes, the state teacher’s union says the amendment hasn’t performed the way voters intended.

“If they would implement class size appropriately, we might see what it was meant to be,” says Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association.  “The Florida Legislature has decided that they would change things, and they eliminated a whole bunch of courses that would be affected by the class size.”

6th grader Mary Stafford chose SAS for middle school. She's been told it'll take her a year to fully adjust to a school of 300 students, instead of the 1000 she's used to.

Gina Jordan/StateImpact Florida

6th grader Mary Stafford chose SAS for middle school. She's been told it'll take her a year to fully adjust to a school of 300 students, instead of the 1000 she's used to.

Districts that don’t comply with the limit in core classes have to pay a fine. But now, fewer classes are considered “core” classes. So, a science class like chemistry can have more students than classes like math or English.

Parents who want a small school for their kids are often limited to private or charter schools.

The Taxwatch analysis finds that Florida’s traditional public elementary and middle schools have the highest average enrollment in the country, and high school enrollment in Florida is almost twice the national average.

The small school formula has worked well for SAS – rated an “A” school for more than a decade. Many SAS employees are part-time, which allows the school to keep costs and enrollment down.

Technically, the school has larger elementary classes than the class size amendment allows. Even though it’s a charter school, Principal Julie Fredrickson says they do have to comply with the amendment.

“The way we meet it in elementary school is because we have two certified teachers in each classroom,” Fredrickson says. “For us, it isn’t just class size; it’s the way we’re teaching them. If you’re studying plants, then the plant is in there and you’re tearing the plant apart. So a small group can do that and get messy, and another group is doing research with the teacher. We can do those sorts of things.”


  • Deuces

    “Many SAS employees are part-time, which allows the school to keep costs and enrollment down.”

    So this is a sham then!! Not for career-minded people at all it seems. Seems to be an accounting trick for the budget and class size.

  • leoniehaimson

    This is a silly and misinformed article. There are only two studies that i know of that controlled for both class size and school size — which is important since most small schools also have small classes. Both found that class size, not school size made the difference in boosting student achievement. The guys who put out this new “report” have been trying to undo the class size initiative ever since it started; “tax watch” is in the organization’s name, so you might deduce keeping taxes low is their real priority — not improving education.

  • Dr. John

    I fully agree with leoniehaimson!! Add to that simply reducing class size will not magically improve student performance. If teachers use the same pedagogy/strategies to teach small classes that they used when teaching large classes, increases in student performance will be minimal. So, in addition to reducing class size, we must also make an investment in on-going professional development, have a plan with which to implement the plan over time, and stick with it. I am disappointed that NPR may not have researched the research.

  • sgenzer

    can you please cite these two studies?

  • JCP

    Some corporate and special interest-controlled “researchers” continue to try to chip away at one of the biggest no brainers in education: kids learn better in smaller classes rather than larger ones. Of course, no one would dream of asking teachers if they’d rather teach, say, 20 kids vs. 35. You know why? B/c 95% of them would emphatically tell you the obvious, which can’t be manipulated by statistical slight of hand.

  • sgenzer

    the learning gains do not necessarily have anything to do with teacher preference. I would also much rather have 20 kids rather than 35, but that does not mean that the 20 kids learn more and better than the 35. I’d also rather teach 15 than 20. Fewer papers to grade for one thing! But this is far from a no-brainer, and the research is far from conclusive on this. I highly recommend reading work from John Hattie (neither corporate nor special interest), who cites results from 96 studies on class size and also says that, “…the effects on reducing class size may be higher on teacher and student work-related conditions, which then may or may not translate into effects on student learning.” (Hattie 2009). It is not statistical slight of hand, I assure you. Please read the research.

  • sgenzer

    just to add a bit more…the key question everywhere, not just in FL, is this: if you a limited amount of funds for education, where should we spend them to optimize student learning? I am sure everyone would agree that we would like class sizes of 20, and teachers making $100k per year, and unlimited PD, and so forth. The public does not fund this, so we need to make informed choices about how to spend these funds. Class size has a HUGE effect on cost, and the research just does not justify its reduction.

  • lifetime learner

    For 18 years, I taught three 90-minute high school history classes each day. Each class had a minimum of 40 teenagers, year after year. I gave two written assignments each week requiring a minimum of 300 words each.

    The math looks like this: 40 students X 3 classes X 2 assignments X 300 words. That’s means I had to read 72,000 words a week, much of it poorly written and difficult to decipher.

    Then I had to offer constructive criticism on each paper and record all those grades. Many weeks include quizzes and tests as well, which added additional hours to the equation.

    Each graded assignment handed back for discussion, explanations and questions required considerable time to get through because more students meant more questions.

    The textbook alone had 800 pages of material and supplemental texts added another 200. Internet resources added at least 200 more. All this material had to be taught in class as well.

    A 90-minute class leaves about 80 minutes for teaching. That breaks down to two minutes per student. That’s 120 seconds.

    These are the cold hard facts. My research was done “on the job.”

    So when you read an article that says class size doesn’t matter, take it as a cue to laugh uproariously. I always do.

  • sgenzer

    not to belabor the point too much more, but after grading 20 years of math tests and science lab reports, I finally realized that there was not necessarily a correlation between the amount of work I did and the amount of learning that took place in my students’ brains. I don’t doubt the cold hard facts below, just the implication that it has a direct relationship on learning. I too doubted the research for a long time, but after a while I realized that all of my efforts were not necessarily put to the best use. Thank you all for the lively discussion. Scott Genzer sgenzer@gmail.com

  • Dr. DLM

    The education system in general needs an overhaul of some sort in all areas.

  • ChuckERacer

    Class size matters, but I’ve found that school size matters more, at least to a point. It is unfortunate that too many think it has to be one or the other. Both matter, both need to be addressed. See http://www.smallerschools.org for the full research and reasoning.

About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »