Cover Story: Does class size matter?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Imagine sitting in a classroom with 25 people, now imagine that classroom with 35 students.  Would you learn at the same level or differently?  In our Cover Story, PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson reports on what the experts say about packing more students in a classroom.

Because of the state's budget crisis.. North Carolina has taken away class size limits for grades four through 12.

It means school districts can now put as many students in each classroom as necessary to deal with reduced state funding.

We wanted to know if oversized classrooms impact a child's learning.

Some of us remember our parents' stories about having to go to class with 50 other kids.. and universities educate in huge lecture classes.

But what is the ideal class size.. and does it make a difference?

North Carolina has zeroed in on class size in recent years.. putting fewer students in a class.. in an attempt to improve test scores.

The thinking is the smaller the class.. the better students learn.

This year however, the state threw all that out, cutting school districts funding 225-million dollars.. for grades 4 through 12.. meaning districts won't be able to hire as many teachers.. resulting in bigger classes.

Dr. Mary Lynne Calhoun Dean of the College of Education at UNC Charlotte says research into whether class size affects learning is inconclusive.. however she says, "We do know that larger class sizes has more of a negative impact the younger the grade and the more struggling the students."

Which is why North Carolina has kept at 24 the maximum class size limit for kindergarten through third grade.

For grades beyond-- grades four through nine.. the previous class size limit was 29.

For high school grades 10-through 12 the limit was 32.

Those numbers will go higher this year as fewer teachers in those grades are being funded by the state.

"Children and young people are resilient. Teachers are adaptive. Everybody can make this work, but it's not ideal," says Dr. Calhoun.

She says in a class of 33 versus 23 a teacher might not notice as quickly that a child is struggling.

And in bigger classes.. it's harder to maintain order, says this college student.

"Bigger distractions in class. A lot more going on in classrooms as far as kids interacting with each other paying less attention to the teacher.. less attention to what's going on in the classroom," says Stephen Faley, a student at UNC Charlotte.

"I think it'll hurt not only the kids because they won't get as efficient as an education.. but I think it will also hurt us in the long run because those are going to be what's coming up next," says Sarah Elliott, a UNC Charlotte student.

But before parents get too discouraged about the world.. hear this from the Education Dean at UNC Charlotte.

"I would say to parents this is not a cause for alarm. But it is a call to be an even stronger partner in your child's education."

In public opinion polls.. smaller class size is often mentioned as important to parents.

But the education dean told us even more significant is the presence of a competent and qualified teacher.

Still she says we ought to be paying attention and not let class size growth get out of hand.

It's happening all over.. class sizes increasing as states grapple with budget cuts.

As far as the classroom goes.. as one teacher said, nobody knows what's going to happen.  When you fill up a room with kids.. it's going to be more difficult to maintain quality.