March 19, 2014

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

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 full report here and 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–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 of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a columnist for, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

Follow me