Debate Over Class Size

Class size has been a controversial topic of conversation when it comes to academic achievement among students, primarily those in elementary school.  Popular opinion suggests that a smaller class size results in higher academic achievement and higher test scores.

So, how does class size impact student performance? Intuitively, maintaining a lower number of students per class should allow teachers to provide more attention to each individual child while reducing time spent disciplining disruptive students. Common sense tells us that this is true.

What does research reveal?

Using research that expands over twenty years and observing test subject groups for over ten years, researchers have been able to turn their accumulated data into conclusions.

On a national scale, in 1977, Wenglinski compared class size and test scores of 4th graders and 8th graders in over 380 school districts combined. He found strong relationships between class size and student achievement. Wenglinski’s research discovered that 4th graders with lower student/teacher ratios are related to higher math scores and 8th graders with lower student/teacher ratios are related to better school social environment thus leading to higher achievement.

A Texas educational system that used data from more than 800 school districts compared class size and test scores and found that district student achievement fell when the student teacher ratio increased above 18 to 1 (Ferguson).

Significantly, a study that began in the late 1970’s produced findings ten years later that supports that smaller class size leads to greater student achievement.  Tennessee’s state wide Star project discovered that the learning advances in smaller classes not only benefits students while participating in the study (13-17 students to 1 teacher ratio), but the advances followed them through later years even when class sizes moved back to the average.

Serve, a federally funded regional educational laboratory for the Southeast, participated in a class size reduction study in the late 90’s. In all cases math and reading student gains increased significantly.  Interaction between students and teachers as well as students and students were also observed.  Classroom and lunchroom activities were more relaxed and organized with smaller classes.

Research tends to support the belief that smaller class size is beneficial to students and their academic achievement but not all studies have shown that students learn more in smaller settings.

Some researchers conclude findings in a different direction.  In one of Manhattan’s worst public schools where only 16 percent of students could read at grade level maintain a smaller class size of 21 students, compared to one of the best private schools in Manhattan which averages 30 students per class and are able to maintain a reading average in the high nineties. Perhaps class size is not the only factor?

Paying for smaller classes

Debate over smaller class size versus cost has been an ongoing struggle for decades. Much debate created several thoughts by both sides.

After the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, a teacher quality block grant funded $2.85 billion in 2002 to hire more teachers and lower class size.

Those who oppose smaller class size suggest that by increasing the pupil/teacher ratio by 1, the U.S would save at least $12 billion per year on teachers’ salaries alone (Brookings Institution).  Others question if there would be a benefit to lay off teachers who were not performing? Premising that by increasing the quality of education to all students, better quality teachers would lead to greater student achievement versus lowering class size (From an article by Education Next).

How about creating smaller class size by using existing space? One way school districts can utilize existing space to create smaller class rooms is to set up a portable wall.  Create a private place for reading, taking tests or conducting more than one activity without distraction.


Concluding that smaller classes leads to higher student achievement not only while participating in a smaller class size but also with gains that follow in later years, has been the source of major debates for over 30 years.  Even though most research clearly shows that smaller class size leads to student achievement, school districts are continually trading off class size vs. budget.

What is your ideal class size? Tell us in the comments below.

-Tina regularly writes about room dividers, utilizing space efficiently, and office fun at Screenflex Room Dividers. You can also find her on Screenflex’s Facebook page and Twitter.

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20 Responses to “Debate Over Class Size”

  1. Douglas PicketteFebruary 6, 2012 at 2:28 am #

    32, 35 and 25 in my three CLJ classes………department is down to 5 teachers(10 years ago we were at 12)

  2. Screenflex Room DividersJanuary 26, 2012 at 3:48 am #

    Some of you have had what I feel is a very high number of students in your classes! Fifty students in first grade must have been chaotic. I hope your teacher had an assistant maybe two! It seems that most of you feel that the magic number is under 20 students. Let's hope for smaller classes!

    • Steve BoneszJanuary 26, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

      Class does make a difference in education. I was worried to send my children to the very large school in our district. But, this school had lots of teachers and aides and the class sizes were kept small. I feel that all 3 of my kids who went there got excellent educations.

  3. Margaret BrownJanuary 12, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    My ideal class size for the 7th grade Math classes that I teach would be between 15-18 students. The smaller the class the more I can work one-on-one with students. My classes right now range between 27-31 and it is difficult to help all the students that need it in a 55 min. period.

  4. Joanne PetersenJanuary 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    The ideal class size would be around 18. Though not very realistic in my district, it would be quite managable. I currently have 21 with 6 of these students having special needs. This makes it difficult to really help all the students as much as I want to and as much as it is needed.

  5. DonnaJanuary 12, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    20 or less at the elementary leel would be the best situation.

  6. Mary Jane CowardJanuary 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    My ideal kindergarten class would be15-18 students.

  7. Erin cravenJanuary 12, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    My ideal sixth grade class size is 14-15. I have found I can give more individual attention to all my students. I can do more small group instruction and rotate groups and see everyone everyday verse only once or twice a week.

  8. Bobbie MarroquinJanuary 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    I think the ideal class size is 14-16 students, I agree test scores would go up and students would get more individualized help and enrichment that is so needed. which in turn students would learn more and discipline problems wouldn’t be a problem! Ideally and realistically, I don’t see that happening, so to have more individual time with separate groups for differentiation and to see all the kids all the time,a movable wall can keep kids separated, and still visible by the teacher, plus the wall can be utilized for extra resources to be used with centers or lessons.

  9. LindaJanuary 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    I teach kindergarten, currently I have 20 students but a small room so space is the issue.
    Ideally I would like to see 16 students in kindergarten classes. The students have so many needs that need to be address before we can even start learning, I sometimes feel overwhelmed.
    I also taught 4th grade, I had 25-29 students, many students moved in and out of the area that I always seems to have someone coming and going. I think 20 at that level would be a good number.

  10. Tina DentonJanuary 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    I think the key to class size is the student’s background knowledge of the subject. I can easily teach a class of 50 or more if the students all have the same foundation level. Now in a normal classroom there is a wide variety of understanding levels so students are in different stages of learning. This is when 10 to 15 students is preferable.

  11. Class sizeJanuary 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    10 students to one me but when that’s not possible the room and classroom helpers can increase achievement.

  12. Lisa Rodriguez DavisJanuary 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    The ideal class is 12 for rotations and centers. I have to say too small is nice and builds a family feeling, but can sometimes be too casual. Unfortuntely I think it may be unrealistic. As a reading teacher I need as much individual time with seperate groups for differentiation and we need to be able tosee all kids at all times, therefore a moveable wall keeps kids seperated, and still visable by the teacher. As demands and class sizes go higher while pay stays stagnant and budgets get cut, I fear we may lose more qualified teachers and less children are going to get the quality / individualized instruction needed.

  13. Kim PepperJanuary 11, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    ideal class size… smaller is better :)

  14. Michelle PerronJanuary 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I also think 18-20 is ideal. I teach grade 2 and currently have 27 students. With that many students, the number of needs, and the needs themselves are extreme. With ten+ ed plans, I am nearly out of the room (for meetings) as much as I am in. In addition, our building was constructed when average class sizes were much smaller. We are very limited with physical space. Our school committee presented last night that if an override does not pass, they will need to cut 12 more elementary teachers. BTW This is an upper middle class town. If one of those cut positions is grade 2, there will be 38 students I. Each of the two classes.

  15. roseJanuary 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    The ideal class size for my literature class would be 12-18. It would be more like a roundtable discussion. Too large and students do not have the opportunity to express their opinions; too small and it is difficult to have discussions. My smallest class ever was 11; my largest class was 33.

  16. Cindy MurphyJanuary 11, 2012 at 4:52 pm #

    I think the ideal class size is 20. Small enough that you can spend time with all the kiddos but big enough for meaningful collaboration.

  17. MaryJanuary 11, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    I once taught two classes that had 12 students each. That was fantastic. Ideally and realistically, 18 would be great. I teach 5th grade and it seems as the students get older, the class sizes increase while the size of the rooms decrease.

  18. KellieJanuary 11, 2012 at 4:09 pm #



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