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Mike Vargas Education Policy, Social Issues, Uncategorized

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Ask a parent a simple question; would you like your kid in a class with 25 kids or 37 kids? I think we all know the answer. Parents want more individual attention for their child, doesn’t everyone? Class size is where it all starts. As we head into election season, we should be asking our candidates how they plan on addressing overcrowding in our Arizona classrooms.

Overcrowding is happening in countless schools across the valley and state, and now it’s so prevalent, it has become the new normal.  I have heard all the debates; larger classes save money, and small classes are expensive to maintain. So what is the ideal class size? In our state, its around 32 or so, but the further East you go that number drops to about 25.

Did you know that class sizes have an even more long-term effect than most people realize? In fact, when you look at kids who spent their earlier years (kindergarten -3rd grade) in smaller classes, the benefits go far beyond test scores. Research shows that kids in smaller classes also are less likely to drop out, more likely to complete high school, and more likely to go on to college. There is even data to support that kids in smaller classes are more likely to go onto STEM careers.

When I first started teaching, I had a roster of 120 kids. Back then this was considered a lot. It equated to a class average around 22 per class.  I used to use notebooks and journals so I could really get deep in understanding my student’s pedagogy for solving problems in my science class. I graded them meticulously and was able to offer weekly and sometimes daily feedback that really helped kids with their growth as the year progressed. I often look back on those times and think about how  I never knew how good I had it.

Today that climate is long gone and in order to stay on top of an immense workload closer to 37 kids in a class, we have to use technology, multiple choice, and spot checks to get kids thru the semester. It’s not terrible, but not ideal. It’s, unfortunately the best we can do with 180 + students’ papers to grade every week. The ability to get to the kids “Hiding in the Back” is hampered by the shear volume. Though many teachers do make the effort, I know of many that can’t and won’t.

It takes me about two hours to score one homework assignment for my 175 + or – students. You do the math; if I grade 4 assignments a week, I just added at a minimum,an extra work day to my week (8 + or – hours) .  It’s not even possible with class sizes on the scale that we teach now.  As much as I love grading, I still have to feed, play, and do homework, with my own kids when I get home at night. And frankly I can’t give that up.

My point is, there is a big difference between 25 and 37 students in a room. The numerous studies I found all lead to the same conclusion, class size matters. The lower the number of students and the more one- on- one contact a student receives equates to higher achievement scores. Those extra minutes make all the difference, and there are piles of research to support that claim.

So why don’t we follow the research and use data to make decisions that help kids… Simply put, we are not playing the long game. One of the toughest walls to get past is that school districts themselves typically don’t like sharing class size data. Evidence of overcrowding is not exactly favorable for a school districts image.  Our decisions on this issue are reactionary due to continually dwindling education budgets and a non-appreciation for long-term gains in favor of a quick fix to put a warm body in a classroom before the 1st day of school.

How can we ever possibly hope to bring down class sizes with a net loss of 4000+ teachers every year statewide? Good luck trying to get teachers to take on classrooms of 37 kids with no end in sight for meager wages.  Until a fundamental shift occurs in how we look at what a classroom size should be, from kinder to graduation, things are not going to get any better.

Your vote in November will be the message to our decision makers on how we proceed, and in the event, you need some data to backup your argument please allow me to provide you with some of my favorite research pieces on the subject below. The STAR study (10)  is by far my favorite.  About 900,000 kids results are pretty conclusive.

1)      Baker, B. D., Farrie, D. and Sciarra, D. G. (2016), Mind the Gap: 20 Years of Progress and Retrenchment in School Funding and Achievement Gaps. ETS Research Report Series, 2016: 1–37.

2)      Mathis, William J. (2016). Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking: The Effectiveness of Class Size Reduction. National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado.

3)      Jackson, C. Kirabo., Johnson, Rucker C., Persico, Claudia. (forthcoming) The Effects of School Spending on Educational And Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms  The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

4)      Zyngier, David. (2014). Class size and academic results, with a focus on children from culturally, linguistically and economically disenfranchised communities. Evidence Base, issue 1, 2014

5)      Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). Does Class Size Matter? National Education Policy Center Policy Brief.

6)       Dynarski, S., Hyman, J., & Schanzenbach, D. W. (2013). Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investments on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion[G78] . Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 32(4): 692-717

7)      Achilles, C. M., et al. (2012). Class-size Policy: The Star Experiment and Related Class-size Studies. NCPEA Policy Brief, 1.2.

8)      Shin, Yongyun. (2012). Do Black Children Benefit More From Small Classes? Multivariate Instrumental Variable Estimators With Ignorable Missing Data. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 37

9)      Bascia, N. (2010). Reducing Class Size: What do we Know?. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education..”

10)  Word, Elizabeth et al. (1990) The State Of Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) Project Technical Report Part I and Part II. Commissioned by the Tennessee State Dept. of Education.


My name is Mike Vargas. I am a proud recipient of the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year award and I am a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. I earned my undergraduate degree from Northern Arizona University where I was Vice – President of the Associated Students, a recipient of the Gold Axe, and President’s Prize awards. I am an advocate for physics first instruction and I am leading a movement to double the current number of physics teachers in Arizona in the next 5 years. I teach high school physics at Pinnacle High School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Comments 8

  1. Beth Maloney

    So many good points, Mike! I’d also like to add that extra students also contribute to teachers’ work load. Work load contributes to job satisfaction and is related to burnout. Job satisfaction and burnout are related to teacher retention, obviously a HUGE issue in our state. I hope people vote wisely!

  2. Caitlin Corrigan

    I completely agree – there is a huge difference between 25 and 27 students! Large class sizes also make it difficult for new teachers to learn their craft. It’s hard to find the time as an experienced teacher to make it work with 29 students in my class, so I really feel for the first year teachers in my building who are trying to learn their teaching craft, grade level content, and how to manage it all!

  3. Yolanda Wheelington

    Great article and I am feeling you. I will say that my current class size has forced me to make some changes for the better: Lessons are high impact, targeted, and more focused (I don’t have time to waist), student ownership and accountability has increased, parent involvement for things I no longer have time to address but are good for the community has increased even more, I rearranged my class to be even more student/learner friendly and adaptive (less chairs and more variety), I prioritized the materials and resources in my class to ensure they are “earning their spot” in the class.

  4. Rachel Perugini

    As an English teacher, the increase in the number of students equals hours of extra grading. Student writing requires so much feedback that it is almost impossible for me to get through their work in a reasonable time without taking it home.

  5. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    As someone who taught seniors and had great management skills, I generally was glad to take the bigger classes to help out those around me. But I never thought of the behind the scenes cost. I definitely cut corners on grading, I didn’t give the feedback that was deserved. Imagine that over time, year after year, less feedback. That has huge impact on learning.

  6. Austine Etcheverry

    Such an important read. Thank you for all the studies you complied and looked at. I agree with you that our students in Arizona deserve better and November is the time to make that happen.

  7. Tim Ihms

    Hi Mike. Nice article on spreading the news that class size is important in education. It is the difference between educating and just managing. I really appreciate the studies included.

  8. Jess Ledbetter

    Wow. This blog is like one mic drop after another. Such great points and such a comprehensive look at the issues. I was really interested in the stats about kids who were in smaller classes between K-3: “Research shows that kids in smaller classes also are less likely to drop out, more likely to complete high school, and more likely to go on to college. There is even data to support that kids in smaller classes are more likely to go onto STEM careers.” Class size is so important and, like you said, I hope Arizona voters elect representation who can improve class sizes over the next few years. Great piece, Mike.

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