Does Class Size Matter?

Some two decades ago, California enacted a Class Size Reduction (CSR) program. This incentive program gave schools a special monetary allocation from the state budget to maintain K-3 class sizes to 20 or fewer students.

Classes also had to be conducted as separate groups acting as an independent class, meaning, you couldn’t have a whole class of 30 with 20 students separated out for some period of time during the school day.

A few years later, some classes for 9th graders were added to the CSR program. Now, more than two decades and multi-billions of dollars later, California is broke and according to the California Department of Education, nowadays few schools are able to participate in CSR due to serious local school district budgetary crises.

The average class sizes in California during the 2016-17 school year were as such and continue to climb given the state of the economy. While small class size is wildly popular among teachers and parents, perhaps rightfully so, I’ve always gone back and forth about how much I believe class size matters with regard to student learning.

There are substantial and reasonable arguments on both sides of the fence. Moreover, I’ve wondered if the ROI (return on investment) is worth the actual cost to having 20 or fewer students in a class or if the money could be better spent in other ways to support student learning.

Already in 2012, Gregory Kristof wrote an article for the Huffington Post that reported on a study which concluded that smaller classes in the early years are crucial and that larger classes should be formed only in the higher grades. From my admittedly non-scientific experience, I have to say (with a good degree of caution) that I agree.

On the whole, I’ve always believed to some degree that small class size is a “feel good” because it makes logical sense, but as a mom, admittedly, I like the “feel good”. There’s one teacher per classroom. How many students can that one teacher effectively teach, especially elementary school teachers given all the different ability levels for each subject that students bring to the table?

As a teacher, I have never had the luxury of having 20 students. In fact, I never had fewer than 28. 28 students who were gifted, English language learners, behavior concerns, Special Education, and of course, average. Could I have done better with 20 students? Likely. Could I have managed a class of 32? Likely, although I’m sure I would not have liked it.

The problem with California’s CSR program is its singular focus on class size. That one factor isn’t enough to make or break the success of the students in the classroom. The teacher, however, is. Many say that early action is better than early decision but we should give this issue and the discussion an early twist before overseeing the consequences. 

Thing is, I would much rather focus on teacher quality rather than class size. Anytime. All the time. If given the choice for my own kids: A. an excellent teacher with 35 kids OR B. an average teacher with 20 kids, I’ll choose option A each and every time. The teacher is the most important factor in a child’s success in that classroom. Sure it certainly helps to provide the teacher with the latest technology, a fully stocked classroom library, and all the materials s/he needs to teach.

But in my experience, I’ve worked with too many excellent teachers who didn’t have all the bells and whistles of a state of the art classroom, yet managed with passion and skill to get students to learn (oftentimes against all odds) and to love learning. In my opinion, funding should always lean heavily towards the development of teachers, support staff, and administrators. It’s the biggest bang for the buck.

Ideally, a combination of the two–an excellent teacher paired with smaller class size–would be the holy grail of education. But since when in life is anything ideal? When our students get older, many of them will start their own businesses and we should teach them all about what it takes to become good and successful entrepreneurs as well. It’s not just about transferring knowledge. Helping them become independent thinkers and doers counts as well!