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Does Class Size Make a Difference?

By Tim Pugmire
March 8 1999
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The Legislature will soon debate Governor Ventura's proposal to reduce class sizes in elementary schools. Ventura wants one teacher for every 17 students in kindergarten through third grade. He's convinced smaller classes will improve student achievement. Ventura holds up Centerville Elementary School to prove his point. But the success of one school's experiment might be tough for other schools to copy.

IN A THIRD-GRADE CLASSROOM at Centerville Elementary, students color paper plates to look like turtle shells. Teacher Michelle Doble steps easily around the three short rows of desks, answering questions and talking to her 15 students. Doble says it's easy to keep track of how of everyone is doing.
Doble: In a regular classroom where you have 27 to 30 students, it's real hard just visually to look and make sure everyone is grasping the concept. With 15, you can physically get to everybody and help them.
Centerville is located on the northern edge of the metro area. Elementary class sizes in the growing Centennial School District average 26 students. But a state-funded research project has lowered eight classes at this school to 15 students to determine if the smaller classes make a difference for children. Third grader Nick Graff says it's making a difference for him.
Graff: The thing that I really like about 15-to-1 is that you get to know everybody a lot more, and it's quieter, and you get to ask more questions, and do things like that.
School officials say after one full year of the class-size experiment, some benefits are clear. Principal Kathy Millington says attendance is up, parents are more involved, and few students need extra help to keep pace with classmates. She says discipline problems have nearly disappeared in the smaller classes.
Millington: There are really no significant behavior problems that have surfaced from those rooms. The classroom teacher is able to adjust and correct children that are going in the wrong direction more expediently. They can deal with it right on the spot.
But the most critical question - whether student achievement has improved - won't be known until after another round of testing in April. An independent consultant hired for project will analyze the data.

The Legislature provided a $600,000 grant to Centerville for two-years of research. Governor Ventura wants to divide up $150 million among schools that submit detailed plans for reducing class sizes to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade. Most of the money would hire new teachers. Republican Representative Alice Seagren, Chair of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says Ventura is heading in the right direction but won't be able to reach his goal.
Seagren: It isn't enough, because of just the salary increases that you see. This will be a large tail we'll have to continue to fund. So, it will be that perception we have to make to the public that you're not going to see 17-to-1 even though we're putting a lot of money into it.
The governor's plan also includes $14 million to offset the cost of building or leasing more classrooms. To make room in Centerville, teachers used storage cabinets to divide three large kindergarten classrooms in half.

Principal Kathy Millington says a goal of the project is to show class sizes can be reduced without adding on to the school buildings. But what worked in one school won't necessarily work in others.

Marsha Ellingson's fourth-grade classroom at Hoover Elementary in Coon Rapids is home this year to 29 students and a large pet rat. The big, metal desks are squeezed together in tight rows, as students work on an art project. Ellingson says it's hard teaching to a large class.
Ellingson: It gets to be a challenge. The noise level gets to be higher. It gets more difficult to walk among the desks. It gets more difficult to have other types of activities in the room to have space to be able to do those types of things. It's not the most conducive to good learning, I don't think.
Ellingson says she'd welcome smaller-class sizes but doesn't know how it could work in her building. Hoover Elementary is one of many crowded schools in the Anoka-Hennepin District. Its 700 students are already crammed into every possible space. The teacher's lounge, storage closets, the theater stage and hallways are used as classrooms. Many Minnesota schools face similar space shortages.
Wiger: It's meaningless to say you're going to reduce a class size if you don't have room for it.
DFL Senator Chuck Wiger says he supports the governor's effort to reduce class sizes, but he's concerned about the impact on school buildings. Wiger chairs a Senate subcommittee of school facilities. He says the $14 million in the governor's budget falls far short of what schools will need for added space.
Wiger: When you look at the projection for this ratio, in some districts it would mean adding an additional school building.
Wiger says the Department of Children, Families and Learning will soon provide lawmakers with a detailed estimate of how much space schools need to lower class sizes, and how much it will cost. He says he's confident the Legislature can address the facilities issue and find a way to reach Ventura's goal. House and Senate committees will tackle the class size reduction issue in the coming weeks.

Tim Pugmire covers education issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach him at