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Virginia Journal of Education

Your Classroom


Class Size: Research Backs What You’ve Known All Along

It’s a hot-button issue in schools all the time, but perhaps even more so now as several of VEA’s local Associations, including Prince William and Loudoun, are waging public campaigns about it: How does class size affect our children and their education?

In our cash-strapped communities, budget cuts get made, sometimes without understanding that such cuts translate into more crowded classrooms with fewer resources.

VEA members have warned for years that learning suffers in crowded classrooms. Teachers know every additional child means less one-on-one interaction between teacher and student – a critical factor in student achievement. And the more crowded a classroom gets, the more of a teacher’s energy and focus often shifts to maintaining discipline rather than educating and nurturing kids.

Once again, what hands-on educators have been saying has been backed by research, this time in a new study conducted by Northwestern University Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. Her findings, published in a policy brief called Does Class Size Matter?, confirm that reducing class size can help students perform better in math and reading tests. She also finds that large class sizes just don’t pay, writing “Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.”

Here are some of the results of Schanzenbach’s research:

• Children learn more and teachers are more effective in smaller classes. She writes that reducing class sizes can help students perform better in math and reading tests. Furthermore, research shows that increasing class size will harm children’s test scores and impair their ability to develop critical skills later in adulthood.

• The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children. Increases in class sizes for those populations will likely be harmful.

• While no “magic number” for class sizes may exist, Schanzenbach notes that students’ achievement on math and reading standardized tests improved by 5 percentile rank points when they were in classrooms of 13 to 17 students, instead of regular-sized classes of 22-25 students.

• Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size reductions against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.

Here’s an example of how class size information can be presented in a way that hides its true impact:  Consider a K-5 school with 100 students in each grade and four classrooms for each grade. Each of the 24 classes in the school has a class size of 25 students. If this school had to lay off one fifth grade teacher, the aggregate numbers would not increase very much. The average pupil-teacher ratio would increase only slightly, from 25.0 to 26.1, while the average class size would increase from 25.0 to 26.4. However, these averages would mask the sharp increase in class size experienced by the fifth-graders, from 25 to 33.3.

Published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, Schanzenbach’s brief can be found on the Great Lakes website at


Five Things Your Students Need to Hear You Say

You know that communicating with students is a key part of your teaching. What you say—and how you say it—is as important as your subject matter.

Here are 5 examples, from the National Education Association, of the kinds of things you can say to your students to encourage intellectual risk-taking and cultivate social growth:

• “Good morning, Tyler!” Taking the time to greet each child helps put a positive note on his or her day before it begins. A personal connection, rather than just jumping immediately into class work, can help your students get in a learning frame of mind.

• “How are you doing?” Young people are very much in tune with whether adults care about them as a whole person. To demonstrate that you do care, show a real interest in how students are doing in their school and personal lives.

• “Thank you for trying something new.” Success isn’t always measured by whether a child knows the right answer. Sometimes, success comes in the form of risk-taking, which should be celebrated—even if the end result is a wrong answer. Remind students if they knew everything, you wouldn’t have a reason to be there teaching them new things. Share your own struggles to help create a safe learning environment.

• “Let’s focus on the positive.” When students get in trouble, don’t dwell on the negative. Instead, give them time to work through their feelings. Once they calm down, tell them that you know they’ll do better next time. Let students know you separate your feelings about them from the way you feel about their behavior or work.

• “I know you have it in you.” Let students know that you’ll be honest about their work, and encourage them to reach for their best. Celebrate when they do. 



Light the Fire: The Power of Active Engagement for Elementary Students

By Colleen White

You have tried everything you can think of to get some of your young students to love reading. Some may love math or social studies, but then become totally different students when you try to interest them in reading activities or lessons.

If only you could ignite their desire to want to read! You know that if you succeed in this, together you’ll build a “fire” that will burn forever. I believe it’s within our power, as teachers, to ignite lifelong readers, readers whose desire will forever blaze because we helped light several small fires at key moments in their lives.

Here are a few fires you can get burning:

Fire Number 1: Music. Create a routine using the “song of the week.” Your students will come to expect it. All you do is come up with a song about the phonics skill or other reading strategy that’s the focus of the week. Teach it to your class and they’ll all know it by heart by the end of the week. Plus, you’ll have their attention since many students love music.

Fire Number 2: Discussion. Talk with students about the song and about what they’re reading. Ask questions such as “Why did this character do what he or she did?”  “What would you do if you had to _____ like the main character(s) in this story?” “How are the words _____, _____ and _____similar?”  “What are some pieces of information you learned from this song?” “What do you notice about the letters that are colored in on some of the words of this song?”

Fire Number 3: Eye contact. If you want your students to be fully engaged, you have to be first. Eye contact is an excellent way to engage them. When given and required, it makes a major difference. Eye contact, to me, acknowledges worth; you are worth my full attention. When you and your students are fully engaged, with eye contact constant, there is an energy that is exhilarating.

Fire Number 4: Sense of community. When students know that you genuinely care about them, and that you enjoy the music and the information the storyline conveys, they want to be a part of the group or class activity. Few students want to feel as if they are missing out on something exciting. Singing a song, reading rhythmically, singing with movement, clapping out patterns, etc., excites students. The old saying is true: “Attitudes are caught, not taught.”

Fire Number 5: Modeling. You are the model. Show them how it’s done! Do “Think Alouds”: Speak your thought process about something aloud, letting your students see as you verbally think your way through to a conclusion.

  For example, say, “When I read, I…
• Stop after a few lines, to make sure I understand what I have read thus far.
• Check to make sure I understand the main idea.
• Make sure that the words I read or sing make sense.
• See if there are any small words in my large words.
• Check to see if there are synonyms, antonyms, homonyms or words that rhyme.

Fire Number 6: Review and sing again. Students will probably ask to sing the song again, even though you’ve already sung it several times together. Assure them that they’ll sing again; however, now it’s time to review what has been discussed and learned for that day. Always close with the song, though, ending on a “high note.”
I don’t think that the power of active engagement can be overstated. When your students are fully engaged with you, they are a remarkably different class, much more involved than when they’re watching a video or CD. I’ve found that students respond better when all of them or groups of them, work through an activity together than during an activity sustained by technology. Research, and my own experience, has proven that students are more apt to stay focused when they are “actively engaged.”

White, a member of the Portsmouth Education Association, is a reading specialist for that city’s schools and has also served as president and legislative chair of the Portsmouth Reading Council. She’s written a book for early elementary educators entitled Teach Me a Song and I Won’t Go Wrong, which is available at or the Amazon or Barnes & Noble websites.


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