Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Class Size Matter?

By Peter DeWitt — October 04, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is not meant to be political...

Nor is it meant to make absolute generalizations...

Some teachers do well with large class sizes. This happens because they can draw in a large group of students and create an intimate setting much like a great speaker can draw in a large audience. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Other teachers have the complete opposite talent with a much smaller group. They do a spectacular job with a small class size because they need to make personal connections with each and every child in their class. It depends on the teacher, the group of students, the content being taught and the expectations in the classroom. There is no one size fits all answer to class size. However, ‘large’ and ‘small’ are relative terms, and can often lead to politicians and policymakers making rash decisions based on their understanding of those terms.

For many teachers, having large class sizes often means that teachers cannot do inquiry-based learning or take risks to include more innovation in their classrooms. Large class sizes lead to stress and high anxiety. Most teachers clearly cannot do as much with large classes that they could do with small ones...but what should be considered a large class size?

According to this Huffington Post article, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract (N.Y.C.) establishes limits for class size as follows:

Pre-kindergarten: 18 students with a teacher and a paraprofessional.

Kindergarten: 25 students.

Grades 1-6: 32 students.

Junior high school/middle school: 33 students in non-Title I schools; 30 in Title I schools.

High school: 34 students; 50 in physical education/gym.”

For full disclosure, I think those class size guidelines are too high. I taught primary education in a few city schools. I had 30 first graders my first year as a public school teacher and had an aide for about 45 minutes a day. The second and third years brought close to the same numbers.

However, I also did not have to worry about Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and the state did not have HEDI (Highly effective, Effective, Developing, Ineffective) scores yet. It doesn’t mean I took teaching less seriously, but there was less pressure.

We look back on things more fondly than they were, so I hope that my classes were fully engaged, even when I had high numbers of students. Unfortunately, I don’t think that was always the case. With a class filled with first graders, I think sometimes I was just happy to make it through the day. But was it my class size or how I approached the size of the class I had?

John Hattie

I have been reading a lot of the research conducted by John Hattie (Visible Learning). As in other blogs that I have written about Hattie’s work which you can read here and here, his team completed one of the largest meta-analyses ever done in education. “Gene Glass (1976), “Introduced the notion of meta-analysis-whereby the effects in each study, where appropriate, are converted to a common measure (an effect size) (Miller. 2010).”

Hattie has a “hinge point” of 0.4. Anything that falls below that hinge point does not have a large effect on student achievement. An effect size of above 1.0 actually is equivalent to a year’s worth of growth. Hattie’s research gives class size an effect of 0.21. Hattie says,

Certainly reducing class size has a small increase on achievement -- but the problem that has been found is that when class size is reduced teachers rarely change their practice so it is thus not surprising that there are small differences. Imagine if teachers were re trained to optimize all the (obvious) advantages -- but without major re training the effects are likely to remain as they have when reducing class size."

Hattie went on to say,

Reducing class sizes has (not the past tense) had a small but positive effect on achievement. Relative to other influences, it is a very low effect and the only question is why is this effect so low (but positive) given the major claims often argued for the amazing influence of reducing class size."

No politicians, this does not mean teachers should have 30 or more students in a classroom. It means that when class sizes are reduced, teachers should try to instruct differently. Hattie goes on to say,

My argument is that the effect is low because the classroom practice barely changes when teachers move from larger to smaller classes. Imagine what could happen if the classroom practice changed to optimize the advantages of fewer students in a group!"

Notice how Hattie did not say ‘raise class sizes’ which is often accused of saying? Hattie went on to say, “There are amazing teachers who have a major impact on larger classes so we should not deprive half these students of these amazing teachers by halving the class size!”

It Depends

Just like with everything else in education, there is no one clear cut answer. Teachers, especially in primary grades, shouldn’t have class sizes of 30 and over. And there are many elementary classrooms in urban settings where class sizes are well over 30. Even the greatest teacher with the best student engagement practices suffers in that type of environment.

However, there are many variables to the class size issue. The smallest class size does not matter if the instruction happening in there is substandard. In addition, we tend to think more about how big a class size is the year after we have a small one. Class size matters means more in a year that you have 27 students...especially after a year that you had 18.

Consider the following:

Student engagement - What instructional methods are you using to engage students? One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and should when it comes to classroom instruction.

Classroom make-up - Perhaps it’s not the size of the class but the personalities in the class that are the issue. Some years the class could be large but have a good group of students who do not have behavioral issues. Other times it might be a small class with many students who stick out for their behavior.

Classroom environment - What does the classroom environment look like? Are there opportunities during the day for small group instruction as well as large group instruction? Try to change the classroom environment from time to time instead of trying to change the children. Each class needs something different.

Teacher’s aides - Are teacher’s aides an option? Are they being used for clerical purposes or are they being utilized for group instruction?

Teacher perception - Perception vs. reality is something people do not like to discuss. Is the class size really that large or is perceived to be large based on having a smaller class size the year before?

Peter will be sitting on a panel to discuss school climate at NBC’s Education Nation on October 8th at noon.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.