The renewed debate over class size

The advantage of smaller classes is coming under question

For decades, education experts have upheld smaller class size as a critical factor to student success. Now some are questioning that assumption, pointing to larger classes in East Asian countries to support their position. The subject is sparking particularly heated debate in the United States and other countries, with some arguing that teacher quality and other factors play a more important role. It even figured in the 2012 US presidential election, with the campaigns of both major parties attacking each other for suggesting that "class size doesn't matter.”[1]

The renewed look at class size is driven in part by fiscal necessity in the wake of the global recession. Tight budgets are forcing many schools to cut back on teachers and to accommodate more students in the classroom. After trending steadily downwards over the last century, class size in the US has started to rise again in recent years. According to a White House report, the national student-teacher ratio rose by 4.6 percent to 16 in 2010 from 2008, “rolling back all the gains made since 2000.” Based on the trend, the average class size would have increased to 20.6 for elementary students in fall 2010 from 20 in 2007, and to 24.1 for high school students from 23.4, the report stated.[2] 

Some are also questioning the emphasis on smaller class size as part of a push to improve the US education system, after American students scored lower on international tests than students in East Asia, where class sizes are often larger.

Federal and state policies in the US have long promoted smaller class sizes. For many teachers and parents, the benefits are obvious. Smaller classes mean fewer students to manage, and fewer distractions. Teachers can spend more time with each student, and give more attention to those who need it. 

"Every extra student is extra everything,” giving teachers less time to devote to individual students, says Yelena Siwinski, a second-grade teacher at New York’s P.S. 193 elementary school who currently teaches a class of 29 but has also taught smaller classes. In contrast, "smaller classes mean more time spent on each individual child during class, more time to develop lessons for them, more time to contact parents to deal with individual problems."

Some studies demonstrate a clear benefit from smaller class size. The oft-cited Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, project conducted in the 1980s tracked the performance of students placed in classes of 13 to 17, from kindergarten through third grade, comparing them to students in larger classes. The study found that children in the smaller classes not only experienced bigger improvements in early learning but also performed better in the long term. Minority students saw the biggest benefit.

While experts acknowledge these findings, many say few other credible studies show a clear correlation between small class size and improved student performance, and that no such studies have been done for higher grades. And today’s environment of fiscal austerity lends added urgency to the issue, as educators look for the most effective ways to boost student performance with limited funding.

Matthew Chingos, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, DC, says reducing class size is one of the most expensive things for an educational system to do, because it requires schools to hire more teachers and build more classrooms. According to a paper he co-authored,[3] increasing the pupil/teacher ratio in the US by one student would save at least $12 billion per year in teacher salary costs alone.

A growing number of experts argue that schools can get more bang for the buck by hiring high-quality teachers. “Teacher quality has the most important impact and trumps class size every time,” said Amber Winkler, vice president of research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education policy think tank.

In 1996, California introduced a programme that aimed to reduce K-3 class size from 30 to 20, creating 25,000 new teaching jobs in its first two years. Inexperienced teachers or those without certification filled many of these positions. As a result, critics say, students in classes with such teachers suffered academically, offsetting gains from smaller classes.

Some experts and policymakers[4] note that high-performing education systems in Asia have larger classes than the US: South Korea averages about 36 students, Japan averages 33 and China – as many as 50. Teachers teach larger – but fewer – classes, leaving more time to prepare lessons and undergo training. But Asian students tend perhaps to be better behaved and more homogenous than those in the US, which may make it easier to teach larger classes. And some Asian schools, including in Japan, are moving towards smaller classes to improve learning and classroom behavior.

Whatever the arguments on class size, the reality is that the number of students is growing in classrooms across the US and elsewhere. For educators, then, the challenge will be how to cope with bigger classes, whether by strengthening teacher training, introducing more technology or targeting smaller classes for students who need them most.


[1] Alyson Klein, "Obama, Romney Link Strong Foreign Policy, U.S. Schools", Education Week, October 26, 2012.

[2] Executive Office of the President, Investing in Our Future: Teachers to the Classroom, August 2012.

[3] Grover Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos, Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy, May 2011.

[4] US Department of Education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speech, “The New Normal: Doing More With Less”, November 2010.

When an underperforming school shuts its doors

Changing the physical environment of education

Vocational versus general secondary education