Austin Rae, middle, and classmates Erica Kipfer, left, and Mary O'Leary Brennan complete an assignment during Julia Ortiz's eighth-grade Spanish class at Steamboat Springs Middle School this week. The Steamboat Springs School Board now is debating class sizes.

Photo by John F. Russell

Austin Rae, middle, and classmates Erica Kipfer, left, and Mary O'Leary Brennan complete an assignment during Julia Ortiz's eighth-grade Spanish class at Steamboat Springs Middle School this week. The Steamboat Springs School Board now is debating class sizes.

Class-size debate murky

Study inconclusive on impacts of enrollment, teachers



Steamboat Springs Middle School teacher Julia Ortiz explains the purpose of an assignment with her eighth-grade Spanish class.

— Class size is a recurring debate topic in Steamboat Springs, but despite many discussions, there have been few concrete numbers or recommendations.

The current policy calls for a teacher-to-student ratio of 19-to-1 in the Steamboat Springs School District's elementary schools and 18-to-1 in its secondary schools. Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said that goal is being met. Meanwhile, a petition signed by 134 Steamboat Springs parents states those parents "expect small class size to remain a top priority in the district" and suggests a cap on classes, but the petition does not give a goal the district should work toward.

Steamboat Springs School Board member John DeVincentis, who frequently brings up the topic of class size, said at a recent board study session that class sizes should be low, but he does not know what size the district should aim for.

During the School Board meeting Monday, he and fellow board member Lisa Brown said they had found contradictory educational studies. DeVincentis, referring to studies he said he e-mailed to board members, said class size was a major indicator of student achievement. Brown said highly qualified teachers are more important.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, the debate is not yet solved.

"The issue of class size has received a great deal of attention in U.S. education policy, since it is commonly looked upon as a factor influencing the interaction between teachers and students. While smaller classes are generally valued because they may allow students to receive more individual attention from their teachers, evidence on the effects of variation in class size upon student performance is mixed," states the "Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries in 2006" study from late 2007.

The study goes on to state that in 2004, only two of the G-8 countries studied had a class size of less than 20 students in primary grades. Those were the Russian Federation, with an average class of 16 students, and Italy, with 18.

The United States' average was near the middle, with 23 students, while Japan had the largest, with 29 students per class.

Closer to Steamboat, the Cherry Creek School District, with 50,000 students, has a "soft cap" for class sizes of 24 in the primary grades and 26 for secondary. The average primary class has 23 students, while the middle and high school classes range from 25 to 30.

East Grand School District, with 1,464 students, opted not to make a policy because the board did not want to lose flexibility in class sizes. They now have an average size of 17, with a maximum of 20. The goal for middle school and high school is 18 students per class, with a maximum of 20.

Seeking input

After a 3-2 vote Monday, the Steamboat Springs School Board kept the policy an administrative decision, but Cunningham said she will not be making the choices alone.

"I know there was a lot of discussion about the superintendent being in charge, but I don't operate that way. We definitely have a committee, and we'll absolutely be working with teachers," she said.

Cunningham said she will work with the school district's administrative team to clarify the policy and ensure that parents do not feel deceived.

"I think it's clear to me that parents feel deceived when they read the policy and then their students come home with 23 students in their class," she said.

The current policy calls for an average across the district and does not set a cap. The petition from parents requested a cap be put in place, but after the meeting, parent leader Melissa VanArsdale said a cap was not the primary focus of the parents' concern, as long as class sizes were kept low.

Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Tim Bishop and several parents spoke against the prospect of a hard cap on class sizes, and board members did not show support for the plan.

Cunningham said she agrees that a cap can lead to unintended consequences.

"A cap is restrictive, for just the reason a couple parents commented on during the board meeting," she said. "I'm not sure we need a cap. I think we need a clearly defined class policy. ... (Caps) actually become punitive."


localboy17 8 years, 2 months ago

I agree that students ultimately make the decisions as to whether or not they learn. But even on days when I really didn't want to have to care (as lame as that sounds now) there were a few teachers that made days in the classroom functional (like you said hands on science, group prjects, field trips, or walks down butcher knife) that despite a bad attitude engaged me into whatever the topic was we were learning. So whether or not I was being a little whiner, at the end of the day I walked away with new information.

I do however have a problem with "multiaged classrooms." I feel like that adds more pressures to the younger ones, the older ones take on a roll of class clowns, and in my opinion makes the learning environment different and not exaclty more beneficial. When all the students are in the same grade, they are the same age, it seems to just mesh a little better.


ybul 8 years, 2 months ago

The issue you have on multi age classrooms might be because you did not grow up in one.

There may be some positives that you are not thinking of. The age difference fosters an environment in which other segregation items are broken down. The multi age classrooms facilitates smaller schools which would reduce the need for busing as schools could be within walking distance of most homes in town.

The pressure issue is a non-issue as in Math the kids are learning at their own pace and the older kids help teach the younger kids. This fosters a pressure that is good not bad. Heck when I was a sophmore I had two math courses one with my peers and the other with juniors and seniors. The course with peers I screwed off and probably did not learn as much. The other course was challenging and I worked towards a good grade.

Go read up on the dynamics and scientific research other countries are following when instituting Montessori systems in their country. A friends brother is consulting all over the world on their setting them up.


howard_roark 8 years, 2 months ago

Let's compare apples here. Not a single one of the above is a public school.


ybul 8 years, 2 months ago


That was going to be my point of the above post.

Maybe arbitrary class sizes would eliminate creative solutions. Integrated courses with two teachers, for longer periods of time so the kids are not distracted for the first ten minutes and last ten minutes of class.

In addition, maybe the desire is not in the size of the class, but in motivation levels of the kids in that class, their respect for fellow classmates and their desire to learn.

Maybe looking into moving to a Montessori structure (actually looking for larger class sizes, at older ages), which fosters an environment which the kids want to learn, see the older kids in their class and are inspired by the desire to be like the older kids (who help teach and thus learn the subject matter better), and try to learn a subject matter quicker.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 2 months ago

And what is the cost per pupil in those elite private schools? Might as well say "when money is no object and the school can reject poor students then these are the results". The countries with the smallest average class size are not the countries with the best education results.

There is little doubt that smaller classes are generally better than larger classes, but even here the school district has far less to spend per student than the elite private schools.

The relevant question is not what works, but what gets the biggest improvement for the money.

I think the answer is not smaller classes for the sake of smaller classes. It is possible in some subjects the student/teacher interaction is more important than in others.

I'd rather the school district spend more money on programs that have shown success elsewhere than just to cram down the average class size.

I would gladly trade a student or two extra in a class if there was something like chess instruction and an active chess club. Ie. something that gets the kids thinking and concentrating that it seems that every study indicates has improved academic results. Could probably also be Sudukos or Kenkens.

If there is nothing better to do than decrease class size then do it.


Duke_bets 8 years, 2 months ago

Telefly - As everyone mentioned, the comparables you list are private schools. Let's compare public to public. Let's compare Colorado public schools to New Mexico public schools. Let's compare $/teacher/student for all of the above. Those results will most likely be similar.


localboy17 8 years, 2 months ago

I would just like to say, as a former graduate of SSHS, that the class size didn't affect performance or attention given to the teacher. What affected the learning was, has been, and always will be the teacher. If the teacher has respect from the students, they can maintian control in a classroom, and the students are going to be intent on learning if the teachers bring various ways of teaching into their classroom. Teacher that just tough, sucked to be blunt. I know ther is probably correlations with class size and success, or whatever, statistics are skewed, and when it comes down to it, the best teachers in our high school were the ones that made learning interesting. For instacne, I took WHISL my junior year at SSHS, (world history and literature) that were two combined classes. On one day the lit teacher would teach to the two combined classes (so around 40 or so students) and the next day the other one would. Fortunately for my grade, Kelly Erickson and Ben Clark hadn't been driven out of the system by crazy parents and an awful administration, and that class was the best class I had. I learned the most, I still apply the knowledge I learned today, and I still have a relationship with those teachers. They made learning fun, interesting, brought it to us in many ways, and made an effort to connect with the students. That is far more than I can say for 3 teachers I know remain there because they choose to play cards with the administration instead of spend time with the students.


Duke_bets 8 years, 2 months ago

local - You make very good points. There will always be specific teachers who can get students to perform better. There will also be students who perform regardless of the teacher. We can blame teachers or we can blame students or we can blame class size. The students put up the end result in all cases.


bubba 8 years, 2 months ago

Umm... Not to be a nay-sayer here, but do you really think that even comparing the number of non-teaching staff at a prep school to a public school is relevant? It has nothing to do with watching a budget, it has to do with the students.

The prep schools on that list have a very strict application process - kids with behavior problems, lack of motivation or other situations that require more staff and detract from learning are not allowed. Also, kids who are not the best and brightest are not allowed in.

The only thing this shows is that for some reason, schools that only allow the smartest, most motivated students have the highest test scores. Incidentally, these schools also have small class sizes.

The comparison is akin to saying that AP English students get better SAT scores than Remedial English students, therefore, there must be a problem with the way the Remedial english class is working.


ybul 8 years, 2 months ago

--something that gets the kids thinking and concentrating--

How about omega 3 supplements? Diet is showing a strong correlation to this aspect. Children deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids are prone to add/adhd and the supplementation reduces its presence and has shown to improve concentration and grades.

A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to positively affect ailments as diverse as stroke, allergies, dementia, and dyslexia.

I am mildly joking, but we fail to look at the whole of the situation. There are so many factors which are hard to control, the key is to figure out how to make programs kids want to be in.

The combined class local boy had might not be possible with strict class sizes.


localboy17 8 years, 2 months ago

ybul, I agree. If you search hard enough you can find a positive or somewhat positive correlation with anything involving student success. What my point was is that it doesn't matter about any of that, what matters is the teachers we bring into the system, and how they run their class. The best teachers I had were challenging, fun, compassionate, personal, and wanted to make learning fun. There are plenty of teachers like that out there, if the damn administration would stop honoring the horrible teachers (I can name you three at least at SSHS right now) and bring in the A-team.


ybul 8 years, 2 months ago

Actually, it does matter. In Minnesota, they yanked the vending machines from one school district and saw grades go up by one level on average for the students.

Without looking at the whole of the situation, you will never come up with a good answer to the problem.

Personally, the teacher is a key component, however, the students natural desire to learn should be fostered from the beginning by finding ways that the kids desire to push themselves to learn new things, by getting their hands dirty (doing accounting for a business to learn math and finance, marketing for english, grammer, etc.), taking a subject and having the kids work on a piece of that subject (Colorado history, have them choose something work with a partner and research the subject and prepare a presentation on that subject gaining experience in reading, writing, history and oral presentation) working on a science project that is hands on to figure out the physics behind it and at the same time fostering a better knowledge of math.

Utilizing a multi age classroom, in order to have the older children be the guides for the younger ones (as the Montessori method espouses) teaching them and inspiring the younger ones to have a desire to learn (the teaching will make the older kids more adept at the subject they are teaching).

Anyway, I digress, without taking into account ones nutrition education, as well as other factors, the educational process will leave something to be desired as you leave out one of the legs upon which the children's development is highly contingent upon.


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