Furthermore, a study last year out of the National Education Policy Center found that small class-size ratios are linked with positive life outcomes, such as less “juvenile criminal behavior,” lower teenage pregnancy rates, and higher high-school graduation and college-enrollment rates. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that reduced class sizes, particularly in earlier grades, correlate with health-care savings and an additional two years of life.
Reduced class sizes can also play a key role in shrinking the academic differences between students of color and their white peers. According to the Princeton University researchers Alan B. Krueger and Diane M. Whitmore, average test scores for black students in small classes increased by as many as 10 percentile points, versus about 4 percentile points for white students. In 1996, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report on schools in a handful of large districts in the state, which stated that an additional 15 percent of students exceeded the national median in math, while another 18 percent exceeded the median for reading, when class sizes were reduced by a third. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has found similar evidence of the pronounced impact small classes can have on disadvantaged children, particularly those with less-educated parents.
What exacerbates the class-size crisis is that schools are struggling to retain instructors. Ubaldo Escalante Bustillos, a 24-year-old Mexican American who chose to work in a disadvantaged school in his hometown of Phoenix, is among the many rookie teachers who quickly left the profession. Though he grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood were achievement levels were low, teachers pushed Escalante Bustillos because they believed in his capabilities, and he wanted to provide the same guidance for other kids. Escalante Bustillos, who got his bachelor’s degree from Princeton and is pursuing a master’s from Columbia this fall, figured he could help children achieve academic excellence, too.
But in part because of the size of his classes, Escalante Bustillos ultimately burned out. He often taught over 30 students for combined seventh- and eighth-grade math classes, oftentimes including students who couldn’t pass English-proficiency exams or who suffered from learning and behavioral disabilities, he explained. In fact, Escalante Bustillos said that thanks to growing enrollment, he even had 48 students in his combined-grade math classes. Because it was difficult for him to manage both levels, he estimated that students received half the amount of instruction they should have gotten. Students often had to share desks with one another because there weren’t enough to go around.
Many of Escalante Bustillo’s students were precisely the kids who needed the most tailored support from a teacher. Students from low-income communities are more prone than their more-advantaged peers to have problems at home and tend to carry these issues with them to class. In the book Teaching Poverty In Mind, the author Eric Jensen argues that low-income children are less likely than others to have their needs met, which correlates with delayed maturation and can inhibit brain-cell production. Despite these needs, according to researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the turnover rate among teachers in poverty-stricken schools, especially those with high-minority populations, is 50 percent higher than it is among those in more well-off schools. On average, public schools in low-income neighborhoods lose 20 percent of their faculty annually.
And that’s a key reason growing class sizes are so insidious. “We can all agree that the quality of teaching is vital, but smaller classes can help teachers provide a more effective education,” the researcher Peter Blatchford wrote in a Guardian op-ed earlier this year. “Instead of focusing on the relationship between class size and pupil attainment, we should be looking at the relationship between class size and effective teaching.”