Does class size matter?

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (February 18, 2014) – While a series of high-profile and often controversial school reforms has gotten the lion’s share of attention from policymakers over the last decade or two, one reform appears to have been consistently ignored and marginalized: reducing the size of classes.

Yet, as Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach points out in a new policy brief released today, the evidence that class size reduction helps raise student achievement is strong. Schanzenbach’s report, published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder, provides a comprehensive review of class-size research.

According to Professor Schanzenbach, class-size reduction has been the victim of a popular misconception that the strategy has been largely unsuccessful. One recent example, Schanzenbach notes, is the writer Malcolm Gladwell, who in a recent book describes small class sizes as a “thing we are convinced is such a big advantage [but] might not be such an advantage at all.”

In fact, she writes, the real story is just the opposite. “Class size matters,” writes Schanzenbach, an economist and education policy professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “Research supports the common-sense notion that children learn more and teachers are more effective in smaller classes.”

Citing evidence from the academic literature, Schanzenbach explains that “class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.”

Conversely, she points out, raising class size can be shown to be harmful to children. “Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future,” she writes.

“Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds,” Schanzenbach concludes. “While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.”

Find Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach’s report, Does Class Size Matter? on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. A copy of this brief can be found at


Read more on the subject >> Class size matters

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11 Responses to Does class size matter?

  1. Ella says:

    Interesting. The problem in the past has been that the data did not show small classes matter.

    This research is wonderful. If we can get more data that shows this then maybe class size will go down again.

  2. Teachers matter says:

    Just some food for thought-in a prior school year, I had a class of 34 students, all of whom were hard-working and, for the most part, well behaved. We had a great year together. In contrast to that class, I have a class less than twenty, more than half of whom could care less about their education and take no ownership of their learning. I lie awake at night thinking of ways to engage them, but no matter what I plan, they act put upon when I ask them to produce work. I give all of my focus to the few who want to learn-they motivate me to do my best. I’m beginning to realize that it’s not the number of students in the class but the kind of “students” in the class. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a babysitter.
    Given the choice, I’d take my 34 kids all day long.

  3. @Teachers matter: Very true. The students are the variable. That’s a different kind of study.

  4. Another comment says:

    To think that foolish teachers voted out Roy Barnes who mandated small classes and the majority of the money be spent in the classes, all because he dared mention we might have to tough tenure.

    Then what happened tenure didn’t matter anyways, because Purdue and Deal have so cut the funding, that class sizes went out the door. Teachers were rifted. It didn’t matter in many districts if you had tenure they went beyond the 3 years, they made up performance lies. Even in once great counties like Cobb. Every teacher got their pay froze for over five years, most got big cuts with for loughs. Then the big capper was the raiding of the teachers and government employers fund to balance the general fund. Compounded by the disaster of a healthcare plan than Deal tried to blame on the ACA, but was bought with a $25k campaign donation to him.

  5. Kim says:

    A student teacher ratio of 1:1 is best. I think anyone who has spent time in small classroom as a student or a teacher knows that on average they are far superior. There’s more time for everything. Of course, as the teacher above relates in an anecdote, a rotten class (or I’ll add, a rotten teacher) can ruin the smallest of classrooms. But it isn’t the exception case we should be targeting for class size judgement but the most common outcomes.

    To me it has always been self-evident that smaller class sizes support the OPPORTUNITY for greater learning. I think we go astray when we are looking to find the GUARANTOR of learning. I don’t believe there is such a thing.

    Pay for and respect professional teachers, reduce class sizes at every possible opportunity at virtually any cost, and cancel all other reform. Then, send the Dept of Ed packing, cut the superintendent’s salary in half, fire all planners that don’t report to a principal and have lunch. That is my recipe for setting the stage for quality public education before lunchtime tomorrow.

  6. Nikole says:

    My current school was a class size reduction school when I began. Test scores have dropped ever since the program was eliminated. I can’t say it’s due to class size because so many other things happened over those years. We went from primary to a traditional school, redistricted twice, and the while our students were impoverished before, it is at a much higher level now. If anything, we’d benefit more from class size reduction today due to the population of students, more than in the past. Dekalb can look to their own data and see how schools that were once in this program are now faring.

  7. concerned citizen says:

    Nikole, I seriously doubt DeKalb has any “data” on student achievement. Think of a time when anyone at the Palace has referred to the “data.” These people at the Palace do not care about the students and teachers. The minute that people of DeKalb come to understand that we looking at pure neglect and indifference there will be change. To those of you on this miserable board, shame, shame, shame on you for going with the flow and keeping your mouths shut. You did good!!! I’m sure your families are all proud of you, as we are, the taxpayers of DeKalb.

  8. concerned citizen says:

    Kim, your plan is pure genius and there’s no reason it can’t be enacted tomorrow. Let’s get right down to the nitty-gritty and do as you sagely suggest!! Your menu would go down good with the teachers, students, and taxpayers, no so much with the bloated palace minions and the greedy board.

  9. Teachers matter says:

    Kim, I think your ideas are great. My reason for sharing my experience is to point out that one solution is not a guarantee of success and, as has been proven in this county, prevents other solutions from being implemented as well. Your post proves that by offering several ideas that would produce positive results.

  10. midvaledad says:

    Teachers Matter proves this saying, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.” – Chinese Proverb

  11. Dekalbite2 says:

    I just finished the Malcolm Gladwell book, and he does characterize size reduction as an item that seems to confer advantages. He cites some noted studies. However, Gladwell is citing studies that compare class sizes of 16 with 24. If you read further in his book, you will see his inverted U as he calls it shows that while class sizes may not adversely impact student learning at 24 or even 28, you will reach a “tipping point” (no pun intended Gladwell fans) where class size grows so large that it begins to produce negative returns. For example, he postulates that class sizes can be too small. This is true in my experience. Class sizes can be so small that student interaction, a vital component of any engaged classroom, is inhibited. However, later in his book he is very clear that what is really a good thing at some point can become bad thing – such as class sizes that are unmanageable. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. He gives other examples such as children of affluence where wealth confers an advantage – until great wealth creates that inverted U and becomes a disadvantage – saying children of great wealth often have nothing to strive for. Read this book carefully to see that his class size example is not what it appears as he adds the short caveat that class sizes that become too large invert curve into a U and prove disadvantageous for students.

    One fallacy in our pupil teacher ratios that are published and used as data by academicians in their statistical analyses is their assumption that pupil teacher ratio is how many physical bodies are in a classroom taught by a teacher. For example, the teacher pupil ratio may be 15 pupils to 1 teacher, but most classrooms may have 30 students physically present. That is because ALL of the students are divided by ALL of the personnel certified to teach them. In actuality, all of the non teaching personnel who are certified to teach but are not assigned classrooms (e.g. Coaches, Coordinators, Managers, etc.) do not teach. However, they are part of the divisor – thus making the pupil teacher ratio look good while the reality is that most students will never see class sizes that small. That is what Roy Barnes understood. He limited PHYSICAL class sizes – for example – no high school class could have over 28 physical student bodies in it. Middle was less and so forth on down the line. If the 29th physical body came into a high school classroom – a new teacher must be put in place. Principals got creative and began to utilize those non teaching personnel who did not teach to instruct students. In DeKalb, the Central Office was pruned back (the only time I have seen that since 1972 – my first year in DeKalb). It only lasted a few years and then Purdue came in. Superintendents began immediately to petition Perdue to let them raise class sizes and he did – as high as they wanted – since he also let them “average” classes – ever wonder how DeKalb could fit 40 physical bodies into a classroom but on paper these students aren’t really there?

    Do you want to drive the money to the classroom? Do what Barnes did. Limit the number of physical bodies in a classroom to a reasonable size and then let the school system administrators use the leftover money to fund admin and support. That is the single most effective and simple way to move the money from outside the classroom to inside the classroom.

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