What are the Benefits of Small Classes?

Although common sense would indicate that smaller class sizes are better for students, research doesn’t show that this is necessarily so. Most studies show academic achievement and test score gains are greatest when there are classes of less than 30 students in grades K-3 and the greatest gains have been in reading and math. Students who are economically disadvantaged seem to benefit the most. Small classes seem to have less of an effect on achievement levels in the higher grades. Small classes alone don’t raise student achievement levels-they need to be paired with effective teaching and appropriate learning activities to make a difference.

Small classes do have a positive effect on student attitudes and tend to improve classroom management as well as teacher morale. A Gates Foundation study in which high school dropouts were surveyed found that most students said they would have been more likely to stay in school if they had had small classes, better teachers and more relevant instruction.

Are There Disadvantages to Small Classes?

While small classes generally provide greater attention to students, there can be unintended consequences. When California mandated class size reduction in grades K-3 in 1997, schools needed to hire more teachers and many were forced to hire less experienced teachers, or teachers without full credentials, to meet the demand. Many districts had to add portable classrooms or build new schools to accommodate the small classes – a cost they were not prepared for. Making classes smaller came at a high cost, and hampered school districts from funding other educational needs.

In Florida in 2002, voters approved legislation to reduce class size and these smaller classes must be phased in by 2010. The state Board of Education estimates that Florida will need to spend $2 billion to build enough classrooms to meet the demand. It is unclear what effect this expense will have on the other education needs in the state.

What’s the Difference Between the Student-Teacher Ratio and the Average Class Size?

The student-teacher ratio is the number of students at a school divided by the number of teachers, staff and and/or adults at the site. Different states define student-teacher ratio in different ways (for example, teachers only, all certified staff, all certified and non-certified staff). The student-teacher ratio often includes specialist teachers such as music, art, physical education and special education teachers, while the average class size generally only includes regular classroom teachers.

The average class size is the number of all students in each teacher’s class divided by the number of regular teachers for specific classes (for example, the number of second-graders divided by the number of second-grade teachers). In the United States, the average difference between class size and student-teacher ratio is about 10 students in public elementary schools. For example, an elementary school with a student-teacher ratio of 14 in K-3 would have an average class size of 24 students.

Numbers can be deceiving. While a school may have an average class size of 20, or a student-teacher ratio of 14:1, your child could still have 30 students in his class. It’s important to be aware of the average, but also the actual class size.

How Important is Class Size? What Other Factors Should I Consider?

Class size is just one factor to consider when evaluating your school. Keep in mind these other factors:

  • Teacher quality: Regardless of whether or not your school has small classes, you’ll want to know if the teachers use effective techniques – such as small group work, hands-on activities, individualized instruction – to engage students in learning. Do the teachers work in grade-level teams? Do more experienced teachers mentor the newer teachers? Do the teachers have the opportunity to learn from each other and from experts in their field?
  • Student load: This term refers to the number of students a teacher is responsible for each day. This is important to consider, particularly in high school, where it makes sense for teachers in language arts classes to have a smaller student load than teachers in math and science. An English teacher who has a student load of 200 is less likely to assign and correct papers than a teacher with a student load of 60. A math teacher, on the other hand, could successfully handle a student load of 100 or more students.
  • Partner teachers/teacher aides/volunteers: Some schools may have larger class sizes but are able to provide quality instruction by having teacher aides, parent and community volunteers, and/or “partner teachers”-an additional teacher in the classroom for part or all of the school day. By effectively using these adults, schools can improve morale for teachers and provide the necessary attention for students. Be aware that these additional adults, who may play a vital role in the classroom, are generally not included in class size and student-teacher ratio statistics. Ask at your school how partner teachers, teacher aides and volunteers are employed in the classroom.
  • School size: School size may be as important as class size in influencing student behavior, especially in the upper grades. A study entitled “The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools” showed that students in small schools are more likely to be academically successful, take more advanced level courses and participate in extracurricular activities.

Questions Parents Should Ask

Want to know more about class size and how it relates to student achievement at your school and in your school district? Ask questions like these of your school administrators, school site council and local school board:

  • How does your school district determine the average class size or student-teacher ratio? Does the number include all staff or just the classroom teachers?
  • What’s the difference between the size of your child’s class and the average class size?
  • How does the average class size compare to other districts and to the state average?
  • Regardless of the class size, do teachers make an effort to provide individual attention to all students?
  • How can I make sure my child gets the right amount of attention?
  • Will budget cuts to education have an effect on class size at my school?
  • What can I do as a parent to work with my child’s teacher?




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