Approved April 2014
NCTE has long-established positions on class size for English language arts teachers. In 1960 it adopted a policy that secondary teachers of English should teach a maximum of 100 students per day, and that elementary teachers should have a comparable load. In 1971 it passed a resolution to inform local, state, and national administrators and policymakers about this policy. In 1983 and again in 1995 there were resolutions urging more attention to the issue of class size. And in 1999 NCTE issued a position statement on class size and teacher workload.
Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09, while enrollment has increased by 800,000, and class sizes in many schools are at record highs (Rich, 2013). Recent research tells us why this matters:
What Is Class Size?
In research on early elementary school students, small classes usually mean fewer than 20 students, while for high school students the definition of “small” classes is usually somewhat larger. There are similar variations in what constitutes small classes for college writing instruction. In addition to the ambiguity about how many students constitute a smaller class, researchers use different strategies for assigning a class-size number. It can mean the number of students enrolled in the course, the number of students completing the course, or the number of students completing major course assignments (Arias & Walker, 2004). Furthermore, there is a shifting relationship between class size and teacher workload. Reducing class size can, for example, increase teacher workload if the number of students per class is lowered but teachers are assigned one more class per day.
Overall, research shows that students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects and on all assessments when compared to their peers in larger classes. In smaller classes students tend to be as much as one to two months ahead in content knowledge, and they score higher on standardized assessments. It is worth noting, however, that some studies analyze student assessment results in terms of individual student performance and others in terms of class-wide aggregated performance, which can obscure the differences in individual students’ performances.
These positive effects of small class sizes are strongest for elementary school students, and they become more powerful and enduring the longer students are in smaller classes. That is, students who have smaller classes in early elementary grades continue to benefit from this experience even if they are in larger classes in upper elementary or middle school (Bruhwiler & Blatchford, 2011; Chingos, 2013).
Despite the generally positive effects of smaller classes, the benefits are not consistent across all levels and populations. Small classes make the biggest difference for early elementary school students, while for many high school students smaller classes do not make a significant difference in academic performance. However, for minority and at-risk students as well as those who struggle with English literacy, smaller classes enhance academic performance. Class size also shapes the quality of writing instruction at all levels, including college, because smaller classes are essential for students to get sufficient feedback on multiple drafts. Not surprisingly, smaller writing classes increase retention at the college level (Blatchford et al., 2002; Horning, 2007).
Academic performance is important, but it is not the only measure of student success. In the area of student engagement, findings consistently show the value of small classes. Students talk and participate more in smaller classes. They are much more likely to interact with the teacher rather than listen passively during class. Not surprisingly, students describe themselves as having better relationships with their teachers in smaller classes and evaluate both these classes and their teachers more positively than do their peers in larger classes. Students display less disruptive behavior in small classes, and teachers spend less time on discipline, leaving more time for instruction. Specifically, teachers in smaller classes can diagnose and track student learning and differentiate instruction in response to student needs. In smaller classes students spend less time off-task or disengaged from the work of the class, and they have greater access to technology. Research also suggests that smaller class sizes can help students develop greater ability to adapt to intellectual and educational challenges (Bedard & Kuhn, 2006; Dee & West, 2011; Fleming, Toutant, & Raptis, 2002).
The benefits of smaller classes extend beyond test scores and student engagement. In addition to the longer-term positive attributes of small class sizes in the early grades, benefits include continued academic and life success. Researchers have found that reducing class size can influence socioeconomic factors including earning potential, improved citizenship, and decreased crime and welfare dependence. The beneficial effects of being assigned to a small class also include an increased probability of attending college. This benefit is greatest for underrepresented and disadvantaged populations. While the increased probability for all students is 2.7%, it is 5.4% for African American students and 7.3% for students in the poorest third of US schools (Dynarsky, Hyman, & Schanzenbach, 2013; Krueger, 2003).
Teacher quality has, for some time, been recognized as the most important variable in the academic success of students. Recruiting and retaining effective teachers has become increasingly important as school districts impose mandates about student test scores and overall academic performance. Class size has an effect on the ability to retain effective teachers because those with large classes are more likely to seek other positions. Research indicates, however, that instead of rewarding effective teachers by decreasing their class size, administrators often increase the class sizes of the most effective teachers in order to ensure better student test scores (Barrett & Toma, 2013; Darling-Hammond, 2000; Guarino, Santibañez, & Daley, 2006).
The Cost Factor
One of the most common arguments against smaller class sizes is financial. School districts claim that they cannot afford to reduce the size of classes because it would be too expensive. However, it is also expensive when students leave public schools to attend private ones. Research shows that class size is a significant factor in parents’ decisions to send their children to private schools. Despite the enormous emphasis on test scores in public schools, parents report little interest in these scores when choosing a school. Instead, two of the top five reasons parents give for choosing a private school are “smaller class sizes” (48.9 %) and “more individual attention for my child” (39.3%). The other three reasons are better student discipline, better learning environment, and improved student safety, all of which are influenced by class size (Kelly & Scafidi, 2013).
Class size is a major factor in student learning. To be sure, it is one of several important factors, and more research is needed to determine how it interacts with phenomena such as teacher quality and context, but existing research should guide policy decisions in several ways.
- Do not conflate class size and teacher workload.
Class size can refer to enrollment in or completion of a given class or program of study, and each of these has different implications for a teacher’s workload. If a large number of students enroll but do not complete a course, for example, the ratio of class size to workload will shift depending upon whether enrollment or completion is considered. Furthermore, requiring teachers to teach more classes with smaller numbers of students in each does not constitute a decrease in workload.
- Recognize that the benefits of reduced class size are not uniform across all grades and populations.
Although more research is needed to understand the full effect of class size, existing research shows that younger students, at-risk students, and special-needs students receive greater benefit from small classes than other populations.
- Consider the differential effects of class size across the disciplines.
Most research on class size does not distinguish among disciplines, so it is easy to assume that an increase or decrease in class size will have the same effect in every classroom. However, a class that assesses student learning with multiple choice tests may not receive as much benefit from a reduction in class size as a class that assesses student learning with written essays.
- Use multiple measures to evaluate the effects of reducing class size.
Since class size interacts with several dimensions of learning that extend beyond what can be measured with a standardized test, it is important to use several different measures to determine the effects of making classes smaller.
Arias, J. J., & Walker, D. M. (2004). Additional evidence on the relationship between class size and student performance. Journal of Economic Education 35(4), 311–329.
Barrett, N., & Toma, E. F. (2013). Reward or punishment? Class size and teacher quality. Economics of Education Review 35, 41–52.
Bedard, K., & Kuhn, P. J. (2006). Where class size really matters: Class size and student ratings of instructor effectiveness. Economics of Education Review 27, 253–265.
Blatchford, P., Goldstein, H., Martin, D., & Browne, W. (2002). A study of class size effects in English school reception year classes. British Educational Research Journal, 28(2), 169–185.
Bruhwiler, C., & Blatchford, P. (2011). Effects of class size and adaptive teaching competency on classroom processes and academic outcome. Learning and Instruction 21(1), 95–108.
Chingos, M. M. (2013). Class size and student outcomes: Research and policy implications. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 32(2), 411–438.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Educational Policy Analysis Archives 8.
Dee, T., & West, M. (2011). The non-cognitive returns to class size. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 33(1), 23–46.
Dynarsky S., Hyman, J. M., and Schanzenbach, D. W. (2013). Experimental evidence on the effect of childhood investments on postsecondary attainment and degree completion. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 32(4), 692–717.
Finn, J. D., & Achilles, C. M. (1999). Tennessee’s class size study: Findings, implications, misconceptions. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 21(2), 97–109.
Fleming, R., Toutant, T., & Raptis, H. (2002). Class size and effects: A review. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
Guarino, C. M., Santibañez, L., & Daley, G. A. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical literature. Review of Educational Research 76(2), 173–208.
Horning, Alice. (2007). The Definitive Article on Class Size. WPA: Writing Program Administration 31(1/2), 14-34.
Kelly, J., & Scafidi, J. (2013). More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Schools. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Retrieved from https://www.edchoice.org/research/more-than-scores/
Krueger, A. B. (2003). Economic considerations and class size. The Economic Journal 113 (485), F34–F63.
Rich, M. (2013, December 21). Subtract teachers, add pupils: Math of today’s jammed schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/22/education/subtract-teachers-add-pupils-math-of-todays-jammed-schools.html
Common sense suggests that public school children will do better in smaller classes than in larger classes. Smaller class sizes provide the opportunity for personal attention and additional instructional help when necessary. Yet, whether smaller class sizes boost academic achievement has been examined in numerous studies with mixed results. This article examines how class size affects academic performance, where smaller class size can have the greatest impact, and how some critics question the benefits and cost effectiveness of class size reduction.
Advantages of Reducing Class Size
Photo by By Jens Rötzsch (Jens Rötzsch) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Several studies have shown that reducing class size increases overall student achievement, especially for younger, disadvantaged children. The following are some of the benefits of fewer students in a classroom.
- Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
- Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
- Fewer students are less distracting to each other than a large group of children.
- Teachers have more time to teach because there are fewer discipline problems.
- Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
- Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.
As a practical matter, it is not possible for most public schools to hire enough teachers so that all classes in grades kindergarten through 12th grade have no more than, for example, 18 students. Given finite resources to hire new teachers, judgments have to be made about where the additional teachers should be placed.
The STAR Project
The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.
Photo via Wikipedia Commons
Based on the STAR project and other studies confirming its results, class size reduction is most effective when:
1) Classes are between 13 and 17 students (some say 15 to 19);
2) Schools with low-income and low-achieving students are targeted;
3) There is an adequate supply of qualified teachers; and
4) There is adequate classroom space.
The benefits of smaller classrooms depend on a teacher-student ratio of around 1 to 15 through 18. Reducing class size from, for example, 28 to 25 students shows no significant advantage.
Recent Findings from the School Improvement Network
Another survey, which reported results in January 2014, was conducted by theSchool Improvement Network. This survey involved more than 5,000 educators across the U.S., representing rural, urban and suburban schools. Responders to the survey said the average class size currently is 23 students. However, these same educators put an optimally-sized classroom between 15-20 students.
Nearly two-thirds of the educators involved in this survey thought class size had a direct impact on student achievement. Unfortunately, even more respondents said that class sizes have increased over the past three years. The biggest drawback with larger classes has been the loss of one-on-one interaction between the teacher and student, these educators stated.
Some have investigated whether hiring an aide for a teacher in a larger classroom can be as effective for increasing student performance as reducing the number of students. These studies have shown that having an aide in the classroom has no positive impact on student achievement or behavior.
Another question investigated in studies is whether smaller classrooms benefit children in the higher grades as well as those in the lower grades. The results of the studies are that small classrooms have the greatest impact in the early grades, especially on underperforming children. Based on these studies, it makes sense to target funds to reduce class size to kindergarten and grades one through three. On the other hand, bad behavior in the classroom by middle and high school students is commonplace and escalating. Because one of the benefits of smaller class size is fewer discipline problems, it would seem that smaller classes would be an advantage in middle and high schools as well as in grade schools. Also, graduation rates, particularly in urban districts, are far too low. It would also seem that a student who is thinking about dropping out or having trouble fulfilling the requirements for graduation would greatly benefit from the additional individual attention from the teacher that smaller classes allow.
Recent Studies Question Certain Benefits
One of the benefits emphasized by supporters of smaller class sizes is the flexibility that it affords the teacher to employ different teaching methods. A single teaching method may not be the most effective for all students in the class. A different learning experience can reach students who are not as responsive to the basic method. Also, a variety of teaching methods may make classes less predictable and boring.
Photo By Foxy1219 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The teaching approaches used by teachers with smaller classes were the subject of a recent large study using data from the U.S, England, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. In March 2008, the researchers reported that many teachers do not modify their teaching methods when teaching smaller classes but rather continue using the same approach as they used with larger classes. Thus, only some teachers are taking advantage of what is perceived to be one of the major benefits of smaller classes.
Irrespective of the teaching methods, however, students in the study continued to perform better in the smaller classes. Thus, students may benefit from smaller classes no matter what teaching methods are used by the teachers. Like the earlier studies, the study also found that children in smaller classes were better behaved and concentrated longer than other students. The students in smaller classes also have more direct interactions with the teacher and work more in groups that alone.
Another factor that has been widely touted as a consequence of class size reduction is that lower-achieving students benefit most from the smaller class sizes. In March 2008, researchers at Northwestern University reported the results of a study concluding that, contrary to the traditional view, smaller class size improves academic achievement of high-achieving students more than for low achievers. They concluded that smaller classes do not help in closing the achievement gap between higher and lower performing students. The opposite conclusion was reached in 2005 by researchers at Southern Methodist University, who found that class size reduction from above 20 students to below 20 students increased test scores for students below the median and decreased test scores for those above the median.
Arguments against Class Size Reduction
Those who oppose making class reduction a priority generally acknowledge that there are benefits from smaller classes, especially for young children. They apply cost-benefit analyses, however, to conclude that the costs for reducing class sizes are too high for what they call the slight benefits. They claim that it would be more cost effective to focus on reform measures other than class size reduction, such as high academic standards, more challenging curricula, more qualified teachers, and more support for teachers. They also believe that popular (and political) support for class size reduction causes that approach to prevail over other, more effective reforms.
Some are concerned about the collateral effects of pursuing a goal to reduce class size. Smaller classes require additional classrooms, calling for construction or renovation. School districts may not have the resources to provide additional classrooms. Also, some question whether a mandate to hire more teachers will cause the hiring of under-qualified teachers. Because smaller class sizes are most effective when there are sufficient numbers of quality teachers, fewer students in a classroom with an inadequate teacher may be even less beneficial than more students with a qualified teacher.
Another concern of critics of class size reduction is whether the achievement benefits for children in smaller classes are temporary or lasting. Some studies have concluded that the higher test scores of students from smaller classrooms are not maintained throughout the students' education.
Class size reduction programs are popular with teachers and parents because they are believed to improve academic performance, curtail behavior problems, and accommodate more flexibility in teaching methods. Some experts contend, however, that other types of school reforms are more beneficial and cost effective than class size reduction. It is difficult for a state or local school district to make a policy decision based on the numerous studies because they reach conflicting results. Regardless of the conclusions of the researchers, however, it is likely that educators and parents of public school children will continue to support smaller class sizes.
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