How important is class size?
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By GreatSchools Staff
Why smaller classes aren't enough
In California, where class size reduction began in 1996, the research has shown only a modest effect on achievement. This disappointingly small gain has been attributed to the following:
- Per student funding for class size reduction was not enough to cover the cost for already underfunded districts.
- School districts had to hire new teachers, many of them not certificated, to meet the needs to make their classes smaller.
- Serious overcrowding issues forced schools to "cannibalize" other needed facilities — special education rooms, child care centers, art and music rooms, gyms — or rent portable classrooms to accommodate the need for more classrooms.
- The high cost of implementing class size reduction made it difficult to fund other education needs.
The California experience points to an important lesson. Class size reduction, in and of itself, is not the answer to all the problems in education. In order for a classroom to be effective, it must have a qualified teacher and adequate facilities. When weighing the advantages of class size reduction, schools, districts, and states must consider these questions:
- Will there be enough resources to provide for high-quality teachers?
- Will there be adequate facilities to provide for the necessary classrooms?
- Will putting money into class size reduction take away money from other programs, such as art, music, and child care?
How important is school size?
School size may be as important as class size in influencing student behavior. An April 2000 report by North Carolina’s State Board of Education on the relationship between school size and student achievement and behavior summed up the research in this area nicely. For elementary school students, there’s an inverse relationship between school size and student achievement: smaller elementary schools are associated with higher achievement.
For high school students, the relationship isn’t as straightforward because students at smaller schools don’t necessarily perform better academically; in fact, one study found that students at medium-sized schools (with between 600 and 900 students) did better academically than students from smaller and larger schools. However, research shows that smaller schools are associated with a host of other benefits for high school students: they are less likely to drop out or be expelled; they have better attendance; they're more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities; and they're more likely to pursue higher education.
Other important factors to consider
In high schools, it is important to consider not only the number of students per class but the nature of the class, and the subject the teacher is teaching. For example, a math teacher might have no problem teaching an advanced math class, or several math classes, with 35-40 students. But an English teacher teaching four classes of 40 students would probably not be able to give the proper attention to written assignments from that many students, and might not give as many assignments because of the large number of students.
Some schools might have classes of 40 taught by a team of two teachers. The class size by itself is not necessarily an indication of the attention students are getting.
Some schools effectively use parents and upper-grade students as volunteers in the classroom. This type of instructional help may not appear in a school's data about class size.