Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Hot Issues for Teachers: Class Size

It's been a challenging year. It's been a challenging class. The teacher has been around a while, and she knows: Some years are like that. The teacher comments that she’s looking forward to next year's (smaller) class size. Yes, numbers can go up and down. Budget and enrollment changes can mean one more or one less class at a given grade level. They can mean six or eight more or fewer children.

Many teachers use mixed groupings: whole group, small group, individual. Some elementary students may have small group “teacher time” while others are practicing their skills independently or engaging in educational activities. Teachers at all levels respond to off-task or potential escalation through proximity. Sometimes moving closer to a student or group is enough. A teacher can move only so fast through a classroom, though, and be near only so many students at a time.

The impact of class size is something teachers feel and talk about. The research is more mixed. The Tennessee Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) experiment has been called ground-breaking. A comparison of primary grade classes that were reduced to 13 - 17 students and those left at 22-26 found gains that persisted years down the road – measured even at the 9th grade level. Some studies, though, have concluded class size reductions yield no benefit. The effects depend on a number of variables, including grade level, size of reduction, student socioeconomic status, and even race. It appears that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have more to gain from being in smaller classes. Class reduction is one tool for eliminating gaps.

The measured effects of class size reduction, though, also depend on how policies are implemented and how success is measured. It doesn’t work to aggregate large amounts of dissimilar data. The National Education Policy Center states that studies have often had flawed designs -- such as measuring the supposed impact of class size while holding per-pupil spending as a constant ( Teacher salaries are a big part of the budget. Districts can’t reduce class size without increasing per-pupil spending – not unless they make extreme cuts in other areas.

The Center for Public Education states that most studies have found that well-designed class size reductions at the K- 3 level have created achievement gains (

Moving Beyond Test Scores

Some researchers have moved beyond test scores to look at the classroom environment. There is some evidence linking class size and teacher attrition ( A 2011 study, meanwhile, investigated the effects of class size on interaction and engagement at the primary and secondary levels. The researchers saw evidence that it affected both. At the primary level, increased class size translated to reduced engagement and more time off task for both low and middle achievers. At the secondary level, results were marked for low achievers: more than twice as much off task time in a class of 30 than in a class of 15. One thing the observers coded for: correction of negative behaviors. Low achievers received more of this type of correction. The researchers posited that in larger classes, teachers felt more need to control behavior. They speculated that it might be a two way street with disengagement leading to correction and correction leading to further disengagement.

Student-teacher interaction, not surprisingly, was greater in the smaller classes. The researchers did concede that reduction in class size didn't automatically lead to a change in teaching or interaction style. On the one hand, it allowed for increased individualization. However, this didn't mean that all teachers would take advantage of it. Some might continue to teach in a whole group lecture format.

Challenges in Implementation

Class size reductions can mean more multi-grade classroms. A study of the Wisconsin Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program in Wisconsin described some of the other complexities that can make class size reductions more or less effective ( The researchers noted something that may surprise a lay person: Class size reduction doesn't always mean making smaller groupings. Sometimes it just means reducing pupil-teacher ratio. When other resources are limited, class size reductions can mean doubling teachers up in rooms where it's challenging to have two classes. A portion of the SAGE classes were 30:2 -- which may translate to 15:1 better on paper than it does in real life. What’s more, a 15:1 ratio on the books could be a 30:1 ratio on some days as teachers were called on to substitute for each other and even substitute for other absent teachers.

Teachers in 30:2 configurations often employed tag team teaching. At a given moment, one teacher would be teaching and the other would be carrying out clerical or management/ discipline tasks. As the vignette that opens the article illustrates, a teacher can be very skillful (demonstrating “warm relationships” and “high expectations”) but still organize team teaching in a way where he or she needs to teach 33 little people at a time and coax 33 little people into sitting and waiting for others to share. One teacher teaching 25 – 30 kids: This may be a teacher’s only model for teaching. The researchers noted that the teaming teachers were spending their time doing things they saw as beneficial to their children, and that the various expectations – including maintaining increasing levels of home-school communication, supporting increasingly challenged populations, implementing other “best practices”, and navigating the challenges of the program they were a part of – could prove untenable for one. Providing support for teachers and administrations could allow them to more fully realize the potential of the reform.

Promising Futures

The potential benefits of class size reduction are large. A re-analysis of the Project STAR 12,000 student quasi-experiment suggests benefits even in the healthcare arena ( This type of research has some questioning whether class size reductions truly cost more in the long-term.

While the battles rage on, with educators, researchers, and pundits offering their opinions, prospective primary grade teachers have a reason to smile. Policymakers have reduced class sizes in a number of states. Some new teachers will find themselves in situations where teachers are modeling very effective practices. Others will forge them – and eventually add their own voices to the debate.