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Are Smaller Classes the Answer?

Teachers, parents, and students all say smaller classes are better, but will smaller class sizes really lead to enhanced student performance?

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Common sense suggests that smaller classes give teachers an opportunity to devote more time to each student and enhance the learning process. Much research supports this theory. Already, about 25 states either have implemented or are in the process of implementing smaller class size in their schools.

"Smaller class size enhances learning," says Don Ernst, director of government relations with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), "for a basic common sense reason -- it helps teachers in getting to know the kids. You can get to know 19 kids better than you can get to know 30 kids.

"The optimal class size where most of the research has been done, in class sizes in grades K-3," Ernst goes on, "is 20 or fewer students."

Inforbrief "Advocates of smaller classes cite a host of benefits," writes Erik W. Robelen in a new ASCD Infobrief (Issue 14, September 1998), Reducing Class Size. "[Among those benefits are] increased student achievement, fewer discipline referrals, more personalized attention to students, higher teacher morale, and more time for teachers to focus on instruction rather than on classroom management"

Yet skeptics are concerned that reducing class size will increase costs -- which it almost certainly will -- without substantially increasing teacher effectiveness or that other, less expensive approaches might achieve the same educational goals without costing as much as limiting class size.

"If you have a choice between a small class with a bad teacher or a large class with a good teacher, which would you choose?" is the rhetorical question from University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek.

"Reducing Class Size," the ASCD Infobrief, summarizes the questions policymakers must confront in making decisions about class size:

  • "Given funding limitations, is reducing class size the best method to improve education?
  • "What approaches to class-size reduction are likely to prove most effective? What factors might enhance the effectiveness of smaller classes?
  • "How can policymakers handle some of the challenges of lowering class size, such as ensuring a qualified teacher pool and managing classroom space shortages?
  • "What impact does class-size reduction policy have on equity in education?"

    Examining the available research will help guide educators who are considering a reduction in class size in their classrooms.


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The Debate Over Class Size
Plenty of research supports the initiative to reduce class size. Early results from a class size reduction program introduced in California also seems to support the plan. This two-part article examines both sides of the issue.

Class Size Reduction: Success Stories Noted in Report
A U.S. Department of Education report, "Local Success Stories: Reducing Class Size," describes challenges and opportunities in efforts to reduce class size. Included: Recent research on class size reduction.

Be sure to check out our A-to-Z Glossary of School Issues.


A wide-ranging study on the effects of class size is Tennessee's Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), along with two associated data collections. STAR was a longitudinal study of first, second, and third grade classrooms in Tennessee. STAR was unusual, according to the Department of Education's report Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?, because of its:


  • Study size. Project STAR included 79 schools, more than 300 classrooms, and 7,000 students, with students being followed through 4 years of experience in the given class size.
  • Random assignment. Teachers and students were randomly assigned to three different kinds of classes in order to ensure that the study was not biased by who was in which type of class. The three categories of classrooms were classes with 13-17 students; classes with 22-26 students with no instructional aide; and classes with 22-26 students with an instructional aide.
  • In-school design. All participating schools implemented at least one of each of the three types of classes in order to cancel out the possible influences coming from variations in the quality of the participating schools that might affect the quality of the classroom activity.

The students in the smaller classes, according to the student testing in STAR, performed better than the students in the larger classes did. This was the case for white and minority students in smaller classes, and for smaller class students from inner-city, urban, suburban, and rural schools.

In fourth grade, students from smaller classes still performed better than the students from larger classes did. "At least through eighth grade, a decreasing but significant higher academic achievement level for the students from the smaller classes persists," according to the Department of Education report.


The most clear-cut problem with reducing class size is the cost. Significantly more must be spent on added teachers and added space to limit class size. In addition, while some states have reduced class size and then done research to make sure that doing so actually enhances student performance, others have not spent money on this kind of research, so they don't know what the added cost is buying.

At times reducing class size has resulted in large numbers of new teachers being thrust into tough situations. Critics then question the educational outcome and quality of education provided.

In 1996, California had to hire many new teachers to implement a reduction in class size mandated by the governor. Many of the new teachers worked with emergency credentials. Those teachers taught smaller classes, but often had few or no experienced teachers to turn to for advice.


Despite some problems with cutting class size, teachers generally support the smaller class sizes.

Shari Elmer, who teaches kindergarten at Loyola Elementary School in Los Altos, California, says in the September 1998 Instructor magazine that the new 20-student-cap has made a huge difference in her classroom.

"The extra time got me inspired to try new things -- things I could never have done before," Elmer said. "I played word games with students. I used hand puppets. I never got the chance or had the time to do those kinds of things before."

"Ask any teacher, we all prefer smaller classes," Association of Texas Professional Educators President Amy White says.

Due to an expected $6 billion state budget surplus, Texas has a plan to enforce a 22-student per class limit in kindergarten through fourth grade.

The debate over class-size and instructional quality will continue. But, as cited in the Department of Education report Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?, "Students, teachers, and parents all report positive effects from the impact of class size reductions on the quality of classroom activity."


To order individual copies of ASCD's Infobrief, Issue 14, September 1998, call 800-933-2723. For more information on education policy issues, go to the ASCD Web site or write to ASCD at 1703 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria, VA 22311-1714.

Tapping the Benefits of Smaller Classes
After decades of research on class size, the evidence is considerable and compelling: Especially in the early grades, smaller classes do make a difference.

Class Size
While many education reform proposals remain controversial, reducing class size to allow for more individualized attention for students is strongly supported by parents, teachers and education researchers. This NEA position paper includes links to research summaries.

Class Size Matters bills itself as a non-profit, non-partisan clearinghouse for information on class size data and the proven benefits of smaller classes.

Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know? A Department of Education report examining various aspects of research on whether reducing class size enhances student performance.

A Lesson in Classroom Size Reduction This article from School Planning & Management magazine recounts how districts in California implemented the state's classroom size reduction plan.


Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World



Originally published 12/07/1998
Links last updated 02/19/2005