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Class size matters, especially in kindergarten

By an overwhelming majority, Minnesota’s kindergarten teachers say that current classroom sizes are degrading the quality of education in kindergarten classes.

By an overwhelming majority, Minnesota’s kindergarten teachers say that current classroom sizes are degrading the quality of education in kindergarten classes.

In an online survey conducted by Minnesota 2020 and the Minnesota Kindergarten Association, kindergarten teachers across the state said the student-to-teacher ratio is almost 3.5 students over the maximum necessary to provide a quality education.

“All kindergarten children are needy,” one teacher wrote. Too many children in her class means she is “unable to give the one-on-one personal attention that each child needs.”

Another teacher agreed: Large class sizes means teachers can’t spend “enough time with each child.  Higher functioning children are often ignored due to so much time being spent with children with low academics skills.”

The anonymous survey was conducted in May and June and was answered by 127 of MKA’s 385 members.

Teaching more than optimal number
Teachers were asked about their current student-to-teacher ratio and what the optimal number of students per teacher should be. They said they teach an average of 20.4 students, while 17 students in each class would be a better number.

When asked if having more students than the optimal number causes the quality of education to suffer, 121 said yes while only 10 said no.

One teacher put it simply: “Young children need lots of attention and with a high number of students you can’t give each child the attention they need, let alone provide for their academic needs.”

Others elaborated. “Kindergarteners need that one-on-one attention every day. I feel I spend more one-on-one time with those who are falling behind and keeping them up to par; the others, if they are doing fine, then they don’t get that extra attention.”

“Young children need SO MUCH MORE one-one guidance as they learn to read/write. They are developing their learning behaviors, social skills, and growing socially all at the same time as we expect their cognitive/academic abilities to flourish. A young child that is struggling with some other areas of development most always needs more one-one teacher time with core curricular learning activities.”

Fed study boosted emphasis on early education
The emphasis on early education received an important boost in Minnesota when, in 2003, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis showed that investments in early education yield a high return in terms of lower educational costs, crime rates, and social service expenses. The study characterized high quality early education as well-trained teachers, low child-to-teacher ratios and the use of a research-based curriculum. The study has led to the creation of advocacy groups such as Ready 4 K and the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation which work to lower the number of kindergarten students in class.

Other studies back up the theory that smaller class sizes create better outcomes for students, especially in the early grades. A Tennessee study showed small classes led to significant improvements in reading and math, and benefits were greatest for students who started in small classes early (full-day kindergarten or first grade).

A Wisconsin project further reinforced the Tennessee study’s results. Students in smaller classes achieved higher test scores and had better behavior and fewer discipline problems, and teachers felt they were better able to provide individual attention. Minority and difficult-to-teach youngsters received greater benefits than other students.

When our state policymakers fail to invest in education to the tune of an inflation-adjusted 13 percent drop since 2003, teachers are cut and class sizes rise. The studies show what the teachers already know: Student-to-teacher ratios in kindergarten are too high and the education our students are receiving is worse because of it. This is not acceptable for any education system — including Minnesota, in which leaders claim to take pride in the education system yet underfund it at such a rate that students suffer.

John Fitzgerald is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.