Smaller class sizes don't automatically translate into better student performance, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that a healthy student-to-teacher ratio can help boost educational outcomes — particularly for children at struggling schools.
That's why it's so concerning that South Carolina hasn't enforced its statewide caps on classroom size since 2010. And even if state officials were to start cracking down again — which they should — it might not be enough.
Under state law, schools must maintain a maximum average student-teacher ratio of 28-to-1 and most classes are capped at 30 or 35 students depending on the grade and subject matter.
According to a recent report by The Post and Courier's Paul Bowers, at least 110 schools statewide had an average of more than 28 students per teacher in 2018. And even South Carolina's more manageable statewide median class size of 21 students is about 40 percent higher than the national average.
It's difficult to study the specific impact of a smaller class size on student performance, since there are so many other variables at work in any school, district or state education system. But a handful of notably rigorous studies suggest that substantial reductions in class size can produce positive results, especially for younger students and minority or low-income students.
The reasons seem obvious enough. With fewer students to manage, teachers can provide more individualized attention and instruction, better control behavioral problems and adjust teaching methods more easily.
The obvious challenge, however, is finding enough well-trained teachers to take on all the new classes created by enforcing a smaller maximum student population. The beneficial impact of smaller class sizes is significantly reduced if under-prepared teachers fill in the gaps, for example.
And South Carolina is already facing a severe teacher shortage.
At least 621 teaching positions were vacant across the state at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, according to a recent Winthrop University report, and 7,340 teachers left their positions at the end of the last school year — many of them permanently.
In other words, reducing class sizes would require South Carolina schools to not only fill all of their existing teaching vacancies but to hire many more instructors as well.
Fortunately, state lawmakers have vowed to make education reform — including addressing teacher requests for pay hikes, reduced paperwork and testing burdens and other improvements — a top priority during this legislative session.
Gov. Henry McMaster also included hundreds of millions of new dollars for education in his executive budget. Key priorities would include a 5 percent teacher pay raise and more than $100 million to recruit and train educators for rural schools.
South Carolina's education shortcomings are complex and longstanding, and resolving them will be challenging. But meeting the state's standards for basic metrics like class size and cutting down on teacher shortages and turnover rates are an obvious place to start.
Students can't excel without good teachers, and teachers can't do their best work without manageable classrooms.
This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.