An Online Debate On Class-Size Reduction

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 08, 2008 2 min read
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Welcome to Teacher Beat! My colleague Vaishali is the veteran who came into edu-journalism through a traditional journalism program. I’m the novice who fell into it through what amounts to our profession’s version of an “alternative route.” We’re sure to have a lively discussion! And what better way than to start off on a controversial topic: class-size reduction.

One of the participants in the ongoing discussion, Ryan Hill, from TEAM Schools, a network of KIPP schools in Newark, N.J., has this to say about the intervention:

“I can attest to the fact that the smaller a class is, the easier it is to teach. As a principal, however, I also know that it is harder to find 30 teachers who can expertly teach 20 kids in a class than it is to find 20 teachers who can expertly teach a class with 30 students. The major class-size studies I’ve seen draw conflicting conclusions, and part of the problem is that we don’t have a common measure by which we can judge class-size initiatives.”

Randi Weingarten, the newly elected leader of the American Federation of Teachers, responds:

“If [research doesn’t prove class size matters], why do so many charter schools, private schools, and successful public schools lower class size as a means to differentiate instruction and ensure kids are not anonymous?”

Charles Barone has written about the tension between fewer highly qualified, experienced teachers vs. more novice teachers over at Swift and Change Able so I won’t get into that here. But the other points are worth exploring.

Mr. Hill is correct in saying that we don’t have a common yardstick for measuring class-size efforts. The Department of Education doesn’t collect data at a fine-enough grain size to tell us what federally funded class-size programs look like. In 2006-2007, districts reported spending 47% of their $3 billion in teacher-quality improvement funding to support smaller classes. (A year later, the figure had dropped to 27%, which to me seems like an awfully quick reallocation. But you can interpret the findings for yourself here under “additional resources.”)

The best-known research study on class-size reduction, the Tennessee STAR, found positive student-achievement benefits but only under a precise set of conditions. Those conditions were not required in NCLB’s teacher-quality program.

It’s certainly hard to argue with Ms. Weingarten that there are clearly anecdotal cases where reducing class size can make all the difference. (i.e., a writing workshop or math lab). What we don’t know is how many teachers are well trained to profit from smaller classes and how cost-effective the strategy is relative to other strategies to raise student improvement.

What are your success stories with class-size reduction? I’d love to hear from teachers on this. You can post on our discussion feature below, or e-mail me directly at

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.