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5 Reasons Class Size Does NOT Matter and 3 Why Large is a Good Thing

Posted by on March 19, 2014

problem solvingAre you drowning in students, sure that the flood of bodies that enter your classroom daily will destroy your effectiveness? Does it depress you, make you second-guess your decision to effect change in the world as a teacher? Do you wonder how you’ll explain to parents–and get them to believe you–that you truly CAN teach thirty students and meet their needs (because you must convince them–of all education characteristics, parents equate class size to success)?

Take heart while I play Devil’s Advocate and offer evidence contrary to what seems by most to be intuitive common sense. I mean, how could splitting your finite amount of time among LESS students be anything but advantageous? Sure, there are many studies (US-based primarily) that support a direct correlation between class size and teacher ability to meet education goals, but consider how you–personally–learn. Sure, it occurs through teachers, but just as often by trial and error, peers, inquiry, student-centered activities, play, experiencing events, differentiated ways unlike others. Educators like John Holt believe “children [and by extension, you] learn most effectively by their own motivation and on their own terms”.

Is it possible the root of the education problem is other than class size? Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City (National Bureau of Economic Research) indicates that traditional success measures–including class size–do not correlate to school effectiveness. According to this study, what doesn’t matter is:

  1. class size
  2. per pupil expenditure
  3. fraction of teachers with no certification
  4. fraction of teachers with an advanced degree

Interestingly enough, class size worldwide isn’t that different from the low-ranking US schools–and several of those with larger class sizes rank above the US in education success (see a summary here):

class size

Here’s an Infographic that tells a similar story.

This is significant especially for those concerned about the US international status in K-12 education and reforming our system to be more like others around the world. I’m not in that camp, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What does matter, according to Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools is:

  1. frequent teacher feedback
  2. use of data to guide instruction
  3. high-dosage tutoring
  4. increased instructional time
  5. high expectations

What’s especially exciting is that when researchers asked the most successful education systems in the world how they justify their larger-than-US class sizes, they not only supported them (see this evidence from Singapore with 33 students per class), they loved them, citing reasons in line with Common Core’s pedagogic thinking:

  1. larger class size means students learn problem solving skills. They can’t rely on the teacher to ride in on a white horse and save them
  2. larger class size means students must work together, rely on each other as resources in learning
  3. larger class size encourages critical thinking

I’m curious what you think. In an era where budget cuts are forcing larger classes, will this damage the already fragile American education system or fix it? Anecdotal information indicates that teachers often cite class size as the reason they struggle to deliver quality education, and parents seeking high-quality schools always ask about ‘class size’. Is this a case where perception is greater than reality or facts have been twisted to support what the researcher desires?

What are your experiences?

BTW–I understand this is counter-intuitive. Teachers won’t believe it’s possible–that larger is better. Please don’t kill the messenger. I’m merely reporting evidence.

More education reform articles:

7 Education Trends You Don’t Want to Miss

How Has the Internet Changed Education

What is the Flipped Classroom

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, anAmazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

updated 5-18-16

3 Responses to 5 Reasons Class Size Does NOT Matter and 3 Why Large is a Good Thing

  1. Melissa Kasso

    Jacqui, I love your blog, but this post is hard to swallow. I can see the point. However, as a fourth grade teacher with 33 students of varied abilities from gifted to special ed this feels impossible. I am the only teacher who works with my class with two exceptions of: 45 minutes of PE once a week for half the school year and one student who get pulled out for about 45 minutes a day for special ed services. I have no aide, no prep time, and I teach all subjects. Easily I work 60 + hours a week. I do try to get as many parent volunteers as possible, but that is not the same as a teacher or trained aide.
    I think the keys to this research are two things. First, “high-dosage tutoring.” With 33 children in my class, I am putting out fires when it comes to tutoring. There is not enough of me to spread around. Second, the idea of inquiry based education and trial and error sound terrific. I whole heartedly agree with this concept, but the amount of standards I am required to teach contradict this method. Time and space are needed and I have neither.
    I work hard to stay positive with my students and meet their needs, but I am tired of being told to be a modern educator when I am still given the resources, space, and materials for an assembly line education.

    • Jacqui

      I don’t disagree at all with you, Melissa. I was amazed in this study that class size is more of an American hot button than the rest of the world. Many nations pay attention to it, but focus on other items. For example, well-behaved students might make the teacher more effective, but American concepts of education don’t want that robotic child who places the teacher on a pedestal. We love an independent streak, maybe less so when it becomes disruptive, but even then. I think at a certain point in time, American schools will have to find our own identity and be comfortable with it, rather than trying to compete on an international stage (which we currently do very poorly) with educational characteristics we don’t necessarily value (like calm instead of creative in classrooms).

      I understand there’s a lot of good to be gained by struggling, failing, trying again, which happens more effectively in large groups where the teacher can’t be everywhere. I’ve had that experience often. I’m thinking of a Photoshop class I took. I don’t think the teacher got over to help me even once, but the trying-and-failing, and reviewing instructions got me through it just fine. It remains one of my great memories. I was so happy with that approach, I modeled it with 5th graders when I taught them Photoshop. It became one of their favorite classes, too.

      But every study I’ve read–including this one–makes a point that lower grades require more help. That seems to change somewhere in MS and/or HS.

      I don’t know the answer. I agree with you, though, that what makes class size less of a predictor of success is the presence of other factors (like tutoring). Good luck with your circumstances. You sound like you have the right (positive) attitude to be that person.

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