Crowded Classrooms
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Crowded Classrooms

We know smaller is better, but crowded classrooms abound. Here's how you can help if your child's class is too big.

What's at Stake

There have been many recent education studies concerning the impact of class size on student achievement. According to Helen Pate-Bain, Ed.D., director of Project STAR (The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio Study, a long-term study of reduced class size), the maximum class size in elementary school ought to be 15 to 18; in middle school 18 to 21; and in high school 22 to 26. (It's important to note that these are maximums; obviously smaller classes would be even more beneficial.)

Few states mandate such numbers, however. In some states there are no requirements for limiting class size at all, and in others, even the official limits far exceed the recommended maximums with 32 or more children not being unheard of in kindergarten. As states struggle with budget shortfalls, often the easiest ways to make cuts in the education budget is to jam more kids into each classroom.

The advantages of smaller classes are great: more individualized instruction, fewer discipline problems, greater opportunities for enrichment activities like group projects, a happier class atmosphere. In addition, says Pate-Bain, research shows that children in smaller classes develop a more positive self-image: "When a teacher gives a child a lot of individual attention, he learns to believe he can achieve great things."

Ironically, there's a direct correlation between small class size and higher standardized test scores in the lower grades, as well, says Deborah Diffily. Just when there's a national push to raise test scores, in many cases, there's also a statewide push to cut the education budget.

What You Can Do

What you can do about it: Again, becoming politically active is the only way to make systemic changes. "Every decision that's made about education is made at the ballot box," explains Pate-Bain. But if your child is already stuck in a crowded class, there are steps you can take to make the situation a bit more tenable.

Volunteer-or better yet, organize a group of volunteers-to help in the classroom with tutoring, photocopying or marking papers (both of which free up teachers to spend more time with individual students), and so on. One study found no significant difference in student performance when the student-teacher ratio is 15-to-1 and when it's 30-to-2. Volunteers in the classroom can make a huge difference.

Enrich the educational environment outside of school. Read to your child every day throughout elementary school, even if he is big enough to read to himself. Enroll your child in enrichment classes at local museums and zoos.

Promote a peer-mentoring program at your child's school. When older children work individually with younger children, both benefit: The older child develops greater self-esteem and an enhanced sense of citizenship, and the younger child profits from one-on-one attention the teacher doesn't have time to provide.

You may not be able to solve this or any other major problem in education, but you aren't powerless, either. Constant dialogue with your child alone can go a long way toward reducing the impact of these controversial issues on her. As Bob Chase says, "Good parenting is the best way to reduce any school stress a child is feeling. No one can make a child feel better about school than a good parent."