The Georgian Ministry of Education and Sciences has put forward an initiative for revising the limit on the maximum number of pupils in a single class in schools. According to the existing regulation, the maximum number of students per class should be 30, or 35 in exceptional cases. As we have learned from a statement of the education minister, this number will be cut to a maximum of 25 students.
Cutting the number of pupils per class is a popular move. However, it is important to realize that such a change does not always result in improvements to the quality of education.
What are the benefits of cutting the number of pupils? At first glance, a teacher will have more time to spend on each student and students will have greater opportunity to check their work with the teacher.
Some teachers will also see a decrease in the total number of students they teach. For example, a teacher who teaches five classes may have a maximum of 175 students under the current limits. Under the new rule, such a teacher will have a maximum of 125 students. In such a case, the teacher will have more time to correct their students’ assignments and to get to know each student better.
Under the new rule, some form teachers (those responsible for a specific class) will also have fewer pupils to look after. According to the supporters of this initiative, all this will have a positive effect on the behavior and performance of students and the development of school culture.
However, such an attitude is not without its critics. The opposing position is supported by the reality that comparisons of different classes in a single country, as well as between those in different countries, does not necessarily show a positive correlation between a lower number of students and higher academic achievements. For example, the average number of pupils per class in Georgia is lower than in Japan, but Japanese students show higher results in international tests. Likewise, in the same tests rural schools in Georgia show lower results than urban schools, despite rural schools tending to have fewer pupils.
The number of students in a class cannot alone be a decisive factor in education quality, and many other factors must be taken into account in order to make a proper comparison. A school’s culture or its social environment may change the effect of class size. But let us put the question in a different way: would the results of Georgian rural schools have been better had there been a smaller number of pupils per class?
Giving a straight answer to this question is difficult, something that is well illustrated by the results of an experiment conducted on this subject in the US state of Tennessee in 1985. In this study, more than 12,000 randomly selected first grade students were redistributed among classes of different sizes.
The academic performance of these students was then observed over many years. Those in smaller-size classes showed better results compared to students in larger classes after four years of study. The difference in performance then gradually disappeared. However, the number of those students admitted to colleges – and with better grades – was higher among those students of the smaller classes. Being in a smaller class was found to have the best effect on socially vulnerable students.
The Tennessee experiment became an important argument in various political decisions and in 1996 a program for cutting the number of students per class began in California.
California’s decision would prove unsuccessful in many ways. Decreasing the number of students per class resulted in many schools needing to create new classes. Schools therefore faced the need to hire new teachers. However, a segment of the new teachers that were hired had lower qualifications than the existing teachers and, as a result, the program of cutting the number of students per class led to a worsened quality of education for a segment of students.
The program also intensified the unequal distribution of qualified teachers among schools. Relatively profitable schools started luring teachers away from less profitable neighboring schools. In some cases, schools with medium and low performance results lost their best teachers, which further worsened the conditions for students.
Apart from the problem of hiring teachers, it was observed that teachers taught smaller classes in much the same way as they did larger classes, which did not improve the quality of education. I personally witnessed such an example in Tbilisi when a teacher, who had transferred from a larger school to a smaller one, conducted a lesson to a 10-student class in the same manner as she would have if trying to make her voice reach a pupil sitting at the back of a 50-student class.
One can draw several conclusions from the Californian example. It is clear that the success of a well-tested model trialed under specifically controlled conditions will not always have identical results when implemented in relatively free conditions. On the other hand, in Georgia, as was the case in California, a decrease in the maximum number of pupils in a class will probably be a popular step, regardless of the effect this has on the quality of education.
In how many schools will the number of children per class be decreased in reality? According to a report on a recent study conducted at Ilia State University (by Berika Shukakidze, Shorena Maghlakelidze and Zurab Giorgobiani), out of the 2,080 schools existing in Georgia 1,569 have up to 299 students across all grades. Consequently, in 75 percent of public schools, the number of students per class does not exceed 25. The majority of such schools are located in villages and mountainous areas.
Taking into account that the number of pupils enrolled in public schools decreases annually, we can assume that the share of schools that will not be affected by the new rule will exceed 75 percent. If we add to that the fact that initially the new regulation will probably be enacted only in the first grade, then a notable change in terms of the number of pupils per class will primarily be achieved in urban schools alone and will only then occur following a stable multi-year policy.
Stability in the education policy of Georgia is, however, a serious problem. When introducing a new teaching plan in 2006, the maximum number of students per class was set at exactly 25. That norm replaced a Soviet-era rule then in place that stated that schools were prohibited from splitting a class when the minimum number of students had not been met.
However, within a few years of the introduction of that norm, the maximum number of students per class started to increase again and the rule on the minimum number of pupils required for splitting up classes was restored, which led to the situation we have today. Given the new financing conditions, under which schools are obliged to determine their own budgets, this move looked absolutely anachronistic.
Should we expect any qualitative difference between the similar regulations as introduced in 2006 and 2014? When making such a prediction, we must keep in mind the context in which the changes were made. The decrease in the number of students per class was initially associated with the requirements of a new teaching plan and the attempts to introduce new teaching methodologies. A segment of urban teachers used to explain that the lack of interactive methods used in classrooms was a result of the problem of overcrowding. Decreasing the number of students was one of a number of initiatives that were designed to help motivate teachers to accept novelties.
In 2006, when the limit on the number of students per class was first introduced, schools were just beginning to operate in accordance with the adoption of their own budgets based on vouchers received for each pupil. The funding for each student was rather small back then too, only some 220 lari per urban student. Consequently, the decrease in the number of students did not bring about notable changes to schools at that time. The situation is different today.
For example, let’s imagine a popular public school in a city, in which five classes, each comprising 30 students, were created for new first grade entrants. In the case of the new regulation being enacted, the number of first grade students admitted will decrease from 150 to 125 unless the school adds a new class. State financing for each first grade student in the largest schools totals 390 lari. In this hypothetical example, the change in student enrollment would mean a 9,750 lari loss for this school and profit for another school.
How will students benefit from that? It is difficult to give a clear-cut answer to this too. Some students who fail to make it into this popular school may have to study at schools that, in their parents’ opinion, are less attractive. Whereas those who do make it into this school will, in reality, find themselves in an organization that has less funding to offer additional resources than it had in the previous year.
However, we cannot predict such a situation with a high degree accuracy because we know that schools can quite easily adapt to new changes and that, in doing so, they do not always take positive steps. So some schools will abolish common rooms or make classrooms smaller in order to increase the number of parallel classes of the same grade.
Georgian and international experience has shown that a decrease in the number of pupils per class does not necessarily bring about positive results. Therefore, it would be better if the state starts the implementation of this program only in those schools that, based on direct consultation, will be properly prepared for the conditions of the change.