Friday, February 25, 2011

Class size and proficiency level grouping

Here are edited excerpts from a letter I wrote to our local school district last year.

Class Size 
I was pleased to hear our superintendent’s recent remarks shedding some light on the mistaken notion that when it comes to class size, smaller is always better.  This is consistent with my own observations after reading about class size reduction (CSR) research.

There is no clear-cut evidence that smaller class size significantly improves academic achievement.  Even the studies most often cited to defend smaller class sizes only showed minimal and questionable benefits when class sizes were reduced to 15-17 pupils, certainly not a goal seriously contemplated by our school district or by most others in Westchester. 

While I empathize with other parents who find small classes intuitively desirable, I agree with the board that budget decisions should be based on the principle of doing the best for our children and not simply on what feels good.  I disagree that increasing class size to 27 students is, as I heard one parent say, reverting to “mediocrity” since research consistently shows that it is the other components of an educational program that have the greatest impact on academic excellence.

Proficiency Level Grouping
When our superintendent made the point that budget restrictions could be an opportunity to make creative, valid changes to program design, it occurred to me that if class sizes are going to increase then it would also be a good time to introduce proficiency level grouping. 

Like many parents I know, my preference is for my children to be taught in an academic class group where the pace and the instruction are most appropriate for their needs and one that provides the most efficient use of their time in school.  While differentiated instruction within one classroom has been vigorously promoted as an innovation capable of addressing the needs of all students in a mixed-proficiency group, I have found it hard to understand how it really works best for my children.  Moreover, the individualized attention needed for differentiation would seem to become even more challenging for a teacher as class size increases.  In a class of 27 with a one-hour long period, this “individual attention” works out to less than three minutes per child.  I cannot see how this is good for either the teacher or the students.

In consideration of the above, our school district should consider instituting proficiency level grouping for core academic subjects at all grade levels, not just in the upper grades as is currently the practice.

This change could benefit all students, but would probably help the academically talented and the struggling learners the most.  These quotes from Karen Rogers' Re-Forming Gifted Education recently caught my eye and made me consider how many academically talented students may not be reaching their potential because of their placement in heterogeneous classrooms.
Third and fourth grades seem to be the trouble spots for many gifted children. By the fourth grade, they have experienced several years of coming to school, putting forward very little effort, and getting amply rewarded for it. . . . Many times, these bright children look around and notice that their classmates, who are working more slowly, are not having to do as much work as they do. Therefore, as a first step toward underachievement, they slow down their pace. . . . The second stage of underachievement often follows quickly. If they are frequently told how "good" their work is, even when they know they didn't put out their best effort, these children become less committed to doing their best work.
Conversely, struggling learners in our school district are constantly pulled out of class for the extra help they need.  While I understand that the school does its best to coordinate these sessions, pull-outs can create learning disruptions that affect both the individual student and other class members.  Ironically, being pulled out sometimes mean the student misses critical classroom instruction and/or interaction that then requires more remedial assistance.

“The Efficient Use of Teachers”, a presentation made at “A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better” provides some additional details about class size and proficiency level grouping. on pages 1-12.  Many other valid ideas that were presented at this conference can be accessed at the link.

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