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March 1, 2010
Vol. 52
No. 3

Responding to the Research

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      Class size reduction programs are popular with the public, and in the last 10 years, 40 states have implemented such programs. Reducing class size implies that teaching in smaller classes will be more responsive to student needs and yield better student achievement. Research shows, however, that teachers often use the same strategies regardless of class size. A November 2009 article from researchers at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, "Class Size Reduction: What It Is, and Isn't" ( ), asserts that investments in class-size reduction need to be accompanied by support for teacher change. Teachers need professional development to help them make the most of smaller classes.
      Laura Varlas of Education Update asked differentiated instruction (DI) expert Carol Ann Tomlinson, Does differentiation change in smaller classes? How can DI help teachers capitalize on small class size?
      Carol Ann Tomlinson: There are few teachers I know who would say class size doesn't matter to them. In general, it's simply easier to know students and follow their progress if there are fewer of them. However, I regularly see teachers with small class sizes who don't differentiate instruction, and teachers with very large enrollments who do. I think teachers who mean to attend to student differences do so regardless of class size. Those who don't mean to—or just can't figure out how to start—don't find sufficient motivation in reduced numbers to solve those problems.
      Differentiation doesn't ask teachers to begin by individualizing instruction. In other words, it doesn't call for teachers to create 20 tasks for 20 students who will come to class tomorrow. It asks teachers to look for patterns of need. Are there students who need assistance with reading tomorrow's material? Are there several students interested in music or sports who would benefit from seeing how fractions are useful in those contexts? Would it open up opportunities for students to have an option to express what they've learned in one of two or three ways rather than only in one format? "Four students misunderstood the principle we were working with yesterday. How can I find time to meet with them today to help clarify their thinking?" Those sorts of decisions for teachers can be made with both smaller and larger classes quite effectively.
      • Using formative assessment to see patterns in student need.
      • Planning for instruction with those patterns in mind.
      • Guiding a classroom where, some of the time, more than one thing is taking place.


      Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development, where she served as Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and Co-Director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity. She spent 21 years in public education, teaching students in high school, preschool, and middle school and administering programs for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974. In 2022, Tomlinson was ranked #12 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings of the 200 "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #4 voice in Curriculum & Instruction.

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