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Studies: smaller classes don't increase achievement

Posted: March 8, 2012 3:46 p.m.
Updated: March 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Smaller class sizes are not proven to increase academic achievement; socio-economic standing is the more important factor, according to several studies conducted on the effects of school size in South Carolina.

Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Frank Morgan presented the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees with information during its meeting Tuesday from seven studies conducted in the state of South Carolina on topics such as school and class sizes and their effects on academic performance. Research on the effects of class sizes in the 1990s was a “mixed bag,” Morgan said. There were advantages to large and small schools; small schools were said to be more effective for disadvantaged students, but larger schools were thought to be better for “affluent” populations.

In the 1990s, many people advocated smaller schools and their inherent benefits. Kenneth Stevenson, a University of South Carolina professor, notes in “School Size and Its Relationship to Student Outcomes and School Climate,” that a 1993 study by Stephen J. Caldas found that class size, student daily attendance and school size accounted for only a 3 percent difference in academic performance within Louisiana’s public school system. Caldas said the strongest indicator of student achievement was the percentage of free and reduced lunch rate.

According to a 1996 study Stevenson conducted, larger schools won more awards and were less likely to be labeled as “dysfunctional,” or poor. He found that there was a correlation between “ideal” school size and socio-economic status. Stevenson’s own 2001 study highlighted that socio-economic status could have such a severe impact that it made studying class size difficult to measure. 

What does today’s research say?

Trustee Jim Smith, of Cassatt, realized after the presentation that the research on school and class size is broad.

“It says a whole lot of things,” Morgan agreed. “Research gives you options and context.”

Of the seven studies Morgan presented, socio-economic factor is the strongest factor in achievement and school climate.  

Smaller class size was the No. 1 pick on the district’s latest budget survey. Mary Anne Byrd, the district’s communications director, said the request for information on school and class size is important in deciding how to proceed in future building and renovation plans. Those decisions, she said, are important both in regard to student and budgetary needs. The board has previously considered the possibility of combining Wateree and Lugoff elementary schools; the school merger would create an elementary school with more than 1,000 students, Byrd said.

“This is the beginning part of the process to see what the best possible plan of action is for the facilities,” Byrd said, after she explained photo tours that trustees review at each board meeting.

When the board finishes reviewing each Kershaw County school, it will decide how to make the second phase of its facility improvement plan effective.

“Smaller class sizes are what people are looking for” because it allows for more individual attention in regard to learning styles, Byrd said. Studies show, however, that smaller class sizes are only effective if teaching methods change. Still, smaller class sizes can be achieved at a larger school, Byrd said. Morgan gave an example of how it is easier to maintain smaller class sizes at larger schools: if a smaller school has a class of 20 with only one teacher per grade level, and four students transfer to that school, that’s now a 24-student class, he said. In a larger school, it is more likely that they could spread those four students out over three or four classrooms. 

The general conclusion is that “there is no magic number.” Byrd said the community’s opinion will be considered in future board decisions on facility changes.

In other board news:

• The board recognized Helen Walker as a finalist for State Teacher of the Year. Walker is a music teacher at Doby’s Mill Elementary School who has been recognized for her use of technology in the classroom.

• The board also recognized Pine Tree Hill Elementary School Principal Lisa Shannon for her recent selection as the South Carolina International Reading Council Administrator of the Year. 

• Mary Hayes, a substitute biology teacher, told the board “what teachers need is other teachers.” Hayes used the public forum period during Tuesday’s board meeting to say that her experience in the classroom has led her to believe that teachers need teacher’s aides to help with the secretarial aspect of teaching. She also asked for lawyer involvement in the district’s decision to buy iPads for the i-Can initiative. She asked the board to reconsider spending the money on personnel.

• The board heard that a 2 percent unfunded step increase mandate will cost the Kershaw County School District approximately $1 million.

• The board approved three updated volunteer policies listed as IJOA, IJOA-R and IJOC. Byrd said the policies contained updated language to align with the district’s two-tiered volunteer system. Byrd said the district previously used an online system to check volunteers’ backgrounds; now, Level 1  volunteers (those under supervision of a KCSD employee) will be screened through a national sex offender registry and Level 2 volunteers (those without employee supervision) will undergo S.C. Law Enforcement Division and/or U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation checks. The policy became effective Feb. 1.

• The board reviewed Lugoff-Elgin High School (L-EHS) facilities. The drainage system and erosion control is a critical need, in addition to updates to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act compliances. The school experiences flooding in one of its main hallways and the auditorium needs repair. The L-EHS Auditorium is the largest auditorium in the school district. Morgan commented that a movie theater built in the same year as the auditorium would have been refurbished by now. 

• A bid to replace football helmets that are more than 10 years of age went out March 2. A new rule says helmets more than 10 years old cannot be reconditioned. The bid will go to Riddell and Schutt, two popular helmet-makers.

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