What Parents and Policymakers Are Saying About Class Size

Compromising With Limited Funds Is Difficult. FotoSearch via Getty Images

For decades there was one issue that both democratic and republican politicians knew would be popular with local voter support.  Supporting class size reduction was an all-around winning position for policy makers.  Parents and teachers both like the idea of fewer students per class.  The assumption is that the reduction in class size will allow the classroom teacher to give each student more attention so struggling or confused students would be less likely to fall through the cracks.

Smaller class sizes would also reduce some of the teachers workload in grading assignments and maintaining classroom behavior.  One of the most cited education research studies, The STAR study done in Tennessee in the late 1980's, supports the notion that smaller class size is better.  

In this study class sizes were reduced from 22 student per class to 15 students per class.  The average student gain was like having an extra three months in school.  Reducing class size soon became accepted conventional wisdom on how to best help students achieve in school.  All across the United States districts began hiring more teachers to reduce class size.  Some states passed laws defining how large classes could be, using lower class size numbers than what the states had historically.  The state of Florida even passed a constitutional amendment in 2002 to keep class sizes small.

It wasn't until the 2008 recession that policymakers began to question if reducing class size was really worth it.

 The recession slashed education budgets across the nation.  Policymakers began reviewing educational research and found that not all studies showed the same benefits of the STAR study.  The STAR study was one that showed some of the greatest benefit from class size reduction.  Other studies should less benefit, or even no benefit.


Class size reduction is very expensive for states and districts to implement.  Each time another class is required the costs include the teacher's annual salary and benefits package plus the costs associated with having another classroom space.  The average teacher salary is around $54,000 a year.   Add the costs of medical, retirement and other benefits and the cost of hiring a single teacher is much higher.  The costs of adding a classroom include the costs of the building, additional heating or cooling costs, janitorial service and more.  This can add up quickly.

For example, if a law caps class size at 20 students and a school has 41 students in a particular grade, then the shcool will have to hire another teacher, and maintain another classroom.  Multiply this across schools and districts and reducing class size becomes very expensive.  

Remember now that school budgets had become limited by the recession.  Since school budgets are made up of only about ten percent of federal funds, some school districts and states were hit harder than others during this time.  States that had the sharpest decline in school funding faced some of the hardest decisions about what they could afford to pay for.

 Suddenly the high cost of smaller class sizes had policymakers wondering if there were other more affordable ways to increase student achievement. 

Policymakers began comparing strategies like paying more for professional development for teachers, more classroom instruction time for students, increasing tutoring availability and adding computer-based instruction.  Faced with an increasingly limited supply of funding, reducing class size has become much less popular as policy makers try to get the most out of educational dollars.

Teachers still generally support smaller class sizes. Smaller classes are less work than larger classes for teachers.

 There are fewer papers to grade, parents to contact, and behavior to manage in the classroom.  For this reason keeping class sizes low can help maintain teacher morale, which leads to greater teacher retention and hiring.

 Smaller class sizes are still popular with parents and voters.  Still, involved parents need to think carefully about the issue of class size and how it would effect their local school community.  Whether they are voting or looking for ways to help, it is worthwhile to examine if your school could really benefit from reducing class size or if one of the alternatives to reducing class size would be a better use of school funds.

<source> Word, E.R., Johnston, J., Bain, H.P., et al. The state of Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) Project: Technical report 1985–1990. Nashville: Tennessee State Department of Education, 1994.</source>

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