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The Debate Over Class Size
Part 1: Class Size Does Matter!

From time to time, Education World reposts a previously published -- but still timely -- article. While some of the information in these articles might be dated, we have updated all links and added new resources. We hope you find this archived article to be both interesting and practical...


In school district after school district, the debate over class size comes up at budget time almost every year. Educators argue that smaller classes -- especially at the younger grades -- result in more effective teaching and learning, increased individual instruction time, and improved test scores.


But, district boards are often hog-tied by budget constraints that prevent them from addressing the issue.

The study considered by most experts to be the landmark experimental study on the effects of class size is known as the STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) project. Researchers began tracking K-3 students in 79 schools scattered across Tennessee in 1985. Of those schools, 25 were located in urban areas, 16 were in the suburbs, and 39 were in rural areas. Each of the schools had to have at least 57 students in a grade. That would provide enough students to make one experimental class of 13 to 17 students and two "normal-sized" classes of 22 to 25 students. One normal-sized class in each school would have an aide, the other would not.

Among the most compelling results of the STAR project are these:

  • Researchers found that STAR students in smaller classes in grades K-3 earned significantly higher scores on basic skills tests in all four years and in all types of schools. The normal-sized classroom that had a teacher's aide showed only slight improvement on the tests.
  • A continuation of the study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study (LBS), tracked students beyond third grade. The students in the smaller classes continued to achieve at higher rates than their peers in the other groups even after they returned to normal-sized classrooms in grades four and beyond.
  • The study also suggests that the benefits of small classes increase as students move from kindergarten to grade 3. In kindergarten, small classes accounted for 55 percent of the students who scored in the top ten percent on standardized measures. That percentage rose at the third-grade level; 78 percent of the top-scoring kids were from the "small class" group.
  • The effects of smaller classes were largest for students in inner-city classes. Follow-up studies have shown that those achievement gains continued after the students returned to regular-size classes after third grade.

"If you can give a child a good beginning, if they learn to read, nobody can take that away from them," Barbara Pate-Bain -- one of the principal investigators on the STAR project and a retired Tennessee State University professor -- told Education Week in 1995.


"Conclusive evidence has shown the benefits of class sizes of 1:15, especially in the primary grades," says Charles M. Achilles, a professor of educational administration at Eastern Michigan University, in Small Classes, Big Possibilities, an article he penned for The School Administrator: "Since the early, 1980s, a large-scale project in Indiana, a major experiment in Tennessee, numerous smaller studies and evaluations of projects that use low adult-to-student ratios have found that youngsters in small classes (1:15 or so) as compared to youngsters in larger classes

  • "obtain higher test scores;
  • "participate more in school;
  • "demonstrate improved behavior; and
  • "retain many benefits of early class-size reductions in their later years of schooling."

Achilles is not alone in his praise for STAR. He points to the reactions of other respected educators. For instance, in the April 1991 issue of Kappan, Donald Orlich, a professor at Washington State University, wrote "In my opinion [STAR] is the most significant educational research done in the U.S. during the past 25 years."

"This is one of the greatest experiments in education in United States history," Frederick Mosteller, emeritus professor at Harvard University, told Education Week. "It definitively answers the question of whether reduction from this size to that size does make a difference, and it clearly does."


Another study of the effects of class size focused on an initiative in the Burke County (North Carolina) Schools. An ERIC summary of of that study's findings states... "Implemented in 1990, the Burke County initiative appears to have resulted in expanded classroom space, improved classroom management, strengthened instruction and assessment, enhanced student concept and relationships with peers, and improved teacher-parent communication. Data also show that students in the reduced-size classrooms had higher standardized test scores in reading and mathematics than did students in the control group."

A Chicago elementary school was the focus of yet another study of class size. ERIC summarizes the findings of that study: "The population studied consisted of 88 first grade students at a Chicago public school, instructed in either a small class of 17 students or a large class of 27 students. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills was used to assess reading achievement of the students in each class. Results indicated that those students in the small class made greater gains in reading achievement compared to those in the larger class."

"When Money Matters," a report of a national study released in 1997 by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), determined that spending money on smaller classes has a greater impact on math achievement than spending on administration, school buildings, or hiring teachers with advanced degrees. Spending money to reduce class size "is a clear indicator for high achievement," Harold Wenglinky, an ETS researcher, told Education Week ("ETS Study Supports Value of Smaller Classes," 8/6/97).


California made the commitment! And all eyes are on the state!

California is investing $800 million dollars in a program that lowers the number of students in the state's K-3 classrooms -- and will hopefully raise students' sinking test scores.

Ninety-four percent of California's elementary and unified school districts participated in the first year (1996-97) of the state's class-size reduction (CSR) program, reports Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction. That translates to nearly one million elementary school children. Out of 895 eligible districts, 839 received funds to cut primary class sizes to 20 students. Almost 52,000 classrooms had smaller classes. About 17,000 new classes were created.

CSR funding priority was given to first grade classes, then second grade, followed by either kindergarten or third grade. Schools could apply for operations funding under either Option 1 or Option 2. Option 1 provided $650 per student for a full-day of instruction in a class of 20 students or less. Option 2 provided $325 for a half-day of instruction in a class of 20 or less, with the primary focus on reading and math. (Only about two percent of the smaller classes are operating under Option 2.)

Of the $771 million available for the operations portion of the class size reduction program -- which pays for the teachers, furniture, instructional materials, and supplies -- about $611 million was claimed.

"I have visited schools all over California," Eastin said in a 1997 California Department of Education press release, "and I am already hearing about positive results as a result of smaller classes. For instance, in the San Francisco Unified School District, test scores for reading and math in first through third grades are up significantly this year."

Since that release, much of the news continues to be positive. A Sacramento Bee story, Smaller Classes Post Gains on Test (11/25/97), reports that test scores have risen and discipline problems have decreased in the San Juan Unified District. The district tested it first-, second-, and third-grade students in October 1996 and in April 1997, the report states. Districtwide, students demonstrated "significant growth" in mathematics scores (up 7 to 8 percent) and "slight growth" (up 4 percent) in reading scores.

"If the trend continues in the next couple years, I believe we're going to see more positive gains," San Juan superintendent Ray Tolleson told the Bee. "I'm anxious to see what happens in the second and third years."

A study of California schools that underwent class size reduction in 1996, found that teachers and parents are happier, according to a recent Daily Report Card: "Teachers say they can cover more topics, teach at a faster pace, give more attention to students having trouble, and identify those who need special education sooner."

"(Students) get more individual attention so they feel like they're truly important and what they do is important," Loretta Poland, a second-grade teacher at the district's Northridge Elementary School, told the Bee.

Has California started a trend? To date, eighteen states have considered limiting class sizes. A group of parents in neighboring Oregon have banded together to lobby the legislature for money to fund schools adequately. A January 1998 news story published in The Oregonian quotes Linda Olson, a Portland parent who spearheaded the initiative: "It isn't the best way to go about this, but they are in gridlock. We don't think the kids can wait any longer."


It should come as no surprise that most teachers prefer smaller classes to larger ones! But smaller classes provide many more benefits than a morale boost for teachers.

Smaller classes are easier to manage, teachers say. In a smaller class, a teacher can spend more time teaching basic skills. Teachers can cover more ground in each lesson and provide daily feedback to students. In smaller classes, it's easier for teachers to pinpoint students who require remedial help. Teachers also have more time to adapt teaching strategies to their individual students, and to provide needed help before it's to late!

Among the potential end results of smaller classes that teachers point to: Fewer children are held back. (School systems save money.) Fewer children are referred for special education. (School systems save more money!) And graduation rates increase.

Teachers say that students in smaller classes pay better attention and ask more questions too.

Fewer students in a classroom usually results in fewer discipline problems, teachers report. Behavior improves when more classroom time is spent in on-task instruction. Teachers who spend less time dealing with discipline problems have more time to spend in direct instruction. And the cycle continues.

In addition, kids have more space in a classroom that has fewer students. That means they spend less time in each other's faces! More freed-up space enables students to get more actively involved in learning.

Teachers with fewer students find that they have more time to involve parents in their children's education. Parents who are in regular contact with teachers and who are involved in their children's education feel part of the process. Everyone agrees: Students behave better and achieve more. As an added benefit, parents who are involved in their children's early education often stay interested and involved as the children move up the grades.

With 16 or 18 students in a classroom "you begin to feel real impacts," Marshall Smith, deputy acting secretary of education told the Hartford Courant. "Teachers can begin to do things differently, group [students] differently, provide more attention."

Charles M. Achilles, professor of education at Eastern Michigan University, summarized his feelings about the benefits of small classes in The School Administrator: "Youngsters who start school in classes of 15 or fewer students need less remediation later. Special education problems are identified early and, once corrected, the youngsters don't spend endless years in the special education spiral. Youngsters in smaller classes seldom are retained in grade. Discipline improves. These benefits will cut costs."

"Is it worth it to spend $1,500 extra for a child not to fail, rather than spend $10,000 for a child to repeat a grade?" asks Barbara Nye, director of a Project STAR follow-up study.

So what's the ideal class size? According to U.S. Department of Education surveys, 24 students seems to be the cutoff. Generally speaking, teachers with 24 students or fewer don't view class size as an issue; teachers who have more than 24 students do.

Carolyn Dickey, a third grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Northwest Washington (D.C.) has 32 students in her classroom this year. Perhaps she summed up teachers' and parents' feelings best when she said in a December Washington Post story, "It's impossible to give individual instruction in a class of 32. Would you want your child in a class of 32?"

Despite compelling evidence about the benefits of smaller classes, the debate rages.

Next week: Part 2 of The Debate Over Class Size examines what the critics have to say.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World



Originally published 02/16/1998
Article and links last updated 01/25/2005