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Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Staffing Practices/Class Size

< Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education‎ | Staffing Practices
What are the positives and negatives of class size?
Small classes in the elementary grades are not the solution to the problems of American schools...Instead, small classes provide an essential opportunity for instruction to be more effective and for students to become optimally involved in the learning process.

—Jeremy Finn, Finn, 2002

Reducing class size is one of the most popular and expensive proposals in educational reform today. Extensive research has been done to study the effects of class size on student achievement, however the results continue to be mixed. Although parents and educators both overwhelmingly support measures to reduce the number of children per classroom, many policy makers wonder if small class benefits outweigh the costs involved.


Class Size vs. Pupil-Teacher RatioEdit

Determining class size is very straightforward once you understand the difference between class size and pupil-teacher ratio. Unfortunately, the two terms are often used interchangeably and this results in a great deal of confusion. Class size is simply the number of students in a classroom that the teacher is responsible for on a regular basis. In contrast, pupil-teacher ratio is a statistical measure of the total number of students in a school divided by the total number of full-time educators. This number is often substantially lower than class size because it includes teachers who do not have a regular classroom assignment (speech, music, special education, etc.). On average, the difference between class size and pupil-teacher ratio is 10 students (Achilles, Finn, & Pate-Bain, 2002). Schools with a pupil-teacher ratio of 15 will average approximately 25 students per classroom. While many schools have a relatively small pupil-teacher ratio, in reality students in those schools are often the product of overcrowded classrooms.

The ResearchEdit

Much of the basis of support for class size reduction programs stems from Project Star (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), a groundbreaking research study initiated by the State of Tennessee in 1985. Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through the third grade, students were randomly assigned to either a small class with 13-17 students, a large class with 22-26 students, or a large class with a teacher aide. More than 12,000 students in 329 classrooms participated in the 4-year longitudinal study (Finn, 2002). Project Star's findings revealed that students in small classes consistently outperformed students in larger classes in all subject areas. Those who benefited the most started the program early and spent multiple years in small classes. The research also indicated that while all students benefited from smaller classes, the positive impact on minority and low-income students was greatest. Follow-up research has continued to show lasting, long-term gains for those students who participated in the study, even after making the transition to larger classes in middle and high school. Since the completion of this social experiment, similar studies have been conducted in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and California. In each instance, the research findings were consistent with those of Project Star (Finn, 2002).

Who Benefits?Edit

Advocates for reduced class size argue that students and teachers both benefit substantially from smaller classes and that smaller classes lead to more effective teaching and improved learning. The key is maximizing those benefits through early intervention, duration, and intensity (Achilles et al, 2002). Students in small classes during the early years show the greatest gains and those gains continue to multiply for each additional year spent in small classes. Students in smaller classes spend more time actively engaged in the learning process, while teachers spend less time managing the classroom and more time providing academic instruction. There are fewer classroom disruptions in smaller classes and discipline problems are greatly reduced. Teachers can provide each student with the individualized attention that is often lacking in a larger classroom setting. These elements combine to form a more productive learning environment that results in enhanced student performance. Increases in student achievement continue to be seen through high school and beyond. Other long lasting effects tied to the class size reduction during formative school years include reduced in-grade retention, reduced dropout rates, and an increase in the desire to attend college. Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from smaller classes; teachers say they are more enthusiastic about their job and benefit from increased morale.

What are the Costs?Edit

Not all the research supports smaller class sizes, even though the desire to reduce class sizes throughout the Nation is strong. The enormous cost of funding these initiatives has lead policy makers to take a closer look at the issue. Most states are struggling to maintain current levels of spending on education. The cost of building thousands of schools and hiring the additional teachers needed to staff them is a financial burden many states fear they cannot afford. Some school districts have begun to divert budget resources earmarked for support services to pay for smaller classes. Other schools have been forced to reduce programs just to provide the necessary classroom space to comply with mandated class sizes. In many areas, computer rooms, music rooms, special-education rooms, and the like are being converted into traditional style classrooms. As supplementary services and programs continue to be cut from schools, many worry that the reduction will hurt those students who need additional services most.

Other pitfalls to reducing class size exist. States who have jumped into class size reduction programs too quickly and without careful planning have found that a significant shortage of qualified teachers exists. Many districts have been forced to hire teachers who lack credentials and have little or no experience just to meet the increased demand, the results of which could lead to an overall decline in educational quality. Those who appose class size reduction argue that quality teachers make the difference, not class size and that highly qualified professional educators are the key to improved student performance.


Many states are being forced to reevaluate how their educational resources are used and to examine alternatives to class size reduction initiatives. Some areas are considering extending the school day or the school year giving students and teachers the opportunity to capitalize on additional instruction time. Others feel it is more important to focus available resources on professional development and additional training and support for teachers. Some research has shown that the benefits of additional training for teachers may have a bigger payoff per dollar spent than class size reduction (Picus, 2000). Many schools hope to use additional technology resources in the classroom as an effective tool to individualize student learning.

In the past, placing teacher aides into the classroom has been a popular alternative to reducing class size in the hope that it would provide students with small class benefits while costing substantially less. Policy makers should be cautioned that the research does not support this hypothesis. Analysis of the Project Star data has shown “no significant difference between classes with teacher aides and full-size classes without aides” (Finn, 2002, p. 555). Many propose eliminating teacher aides altogether in favor of hiring additional teachers.

One radical alternative proposed by Saul Cooperman, former New Jersey Commissioner of Education, calls for an increase in both teacher’s salaries and class size. He feels that “brighter teachers are the best hope we have of increasing student performance” (2006, p. 41) and that the first step is attracting a better pool of teacher candidates. He also argues that the individual attention seen by most as a benefit of smaller classes is more intention than reality and that few educators modify their teaching methods based on class size fluctuation.


Class size reduction is currently one of the most popular educational reforms in the Nation. It also comes along with a multi-billion dollar price tag. Although research on the issue continues to be mixed, overwhelming public support for smaller classes continues to grow. The pressure is mounting for States to take action and reduce class size, although there is often a lack of funds to do so. Many policy makers want hard proof that the cost of funding class size reduction programs does indeed lead to increased student achievement.

Many alternatives to smaller classes are being considered and tough choices will have to be made. States who have current class size reduction programs in place or who are considering such measures should weigh the costs and benefits carefully. The implementation of class size initiatives should be well planned. Adequate funding and the availability of highly qualified teachers are essential. Programs that maximize the effects of smaller classes start in kindergarten or first grade and continue for at least the next several years. Simply reducing class size is not the cure-all to low academic achievement. Great attention must be focused on better training for teachers and the quality of instruction they provide. Above all, society must continue to work towards the goal of greater student achievement for all.

Multiple Choice QuestionsEdit

Click to reveal the answer.

Which classroom has the smallest class size?
A. 18 Students, 1 Teacher
B. 20 Students, 1 Teacher
C. 20 Students, 1 Teacher, 1 Teacher Aide
D. 25 Students, 2 Teachers

A. 18 Students, 1 Teacher

Who benefits the most from small classes?
A. All students in the classroom
B. The teacher
C. Minority and at-risk students
D. Middle school students

C. Minority and at-risk students

What are the biggest challenges facing class size reduction programs?
A. No public or political support.
B. Lack of funding and shortage of qualified teachers.
C. Implementation in middle and high school.
D. Mixed research results.

B. Lack of funding and shortage of qualified teachers.

Which of the following is NOT a key component of successful class size reduction programs?
A. Duration
B. Teacher aides
C. Early intervention
D. Intensity

B. Teacher aides

What is the overall goal of class size reduction programs?
A. Teacher satisfaction.
B. Increased desire to attend college.
C. Greater student achievement.
D. Reduced dropout rates.

C. Greater student achievement.

Essay QuestionEdit

Click to reveal a sample response.

In what way can class size reduction programs be implemented to maximize the effects on student achievement?

Research has shown that class size reduction programs implemented in kindergarten or first grade have a long lasting impact on student performance. Multiple years of small class instruction increase student achievement exponentially. Children educated in a small class setting consistently outperform their large classroom peers in all subject areas. When funding is an issue, districts should target schools with a high population of minority or at-risk youth because they have been shown to make the greatest gains. Highly educated professionals are also essential to a successful class size reduction program. Programs should not be initiated without proper planning or a shortage of qualified teachers may result. Many fear this shortage can lead to an overall decline in the quality of instruction and negate the positive effects of class size reduction.