America / Education

What is the impact of growing classroom sizes in America’s public schools?

Education policy helps construct the backbone of the American dream, while classrooms frame the outlook that affects future generations of Americans. Currently, “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th out of 34…Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average.” Today, class size can continue to deleteriously affect American students ability to achieve their academic potential. Studies have shown that many students need individual attention and cannot prosper in crowded environments. Population growth and increasing economic burdens are limiting the teacher workforce in most public school districts. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities stated that, “At least 35 states are providing less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.” The impact of current economic struggles forced state legislatures to allow an increase in the number of students per classroom. This is an affront to the education of Americans and should be addressed.

Each year, public schools receive reduced funding because of various economic factors and reallocate budget items prior to the school year. Recently, class sizes increased due to the economic recession. Nationally, “Student-teacher ratios in public schools fell steadily over the past 40 years until recently. Between 2008 and 2010, however, the student-teacher ratio increased by 5%…Note that actual class sizes are typically larger than student-teacher ratios.” Should limited class sizes be considered a necessity in U.S. public education?

It is evident that reduced class sizes assist in student development and overall achievement including higher rates of graduation. Students in, high risk, under-resourced and lower socioeconomic areas, during years of budget cuts, can be subject to increased class sizes limiting individual attention to students. The National Center for Education statistics states, “The average class size in 2011–12 was 21.2 pupils for public elementary schools and 26.8 pupils for public secondary schools.” Student to teacher ratios vary from year to year but can be a major indicator for the plausibility of a student’s success. “In high poverty and low-achieving school districts especially, where resources and personnel are always stretched thin, hiring additional teachers and creating space for smaller classes may seem out of reach. With the deluge of research documenting the benefits of smaller classes, especially at the earliest grades, it is time to take another look at this important education reform strategy.” Education policy must strive to reduce the number of students in classrooms to increase the potential of American students. Classroom size impacts the teaching environment and learning habitat for students.

In 1982, the Tennessee Student & Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) program began to evaluate this issue and determine the impacts of classroom size on students. The results revealed that smaller class sizes are necessary for improved education. “In the STAR study, those in kindergarten classes of 13-17 students were about one month ahead of their counterparts in classes of 22-25 students at the end of the year and, by the end of second grade, those in the smaller classes were about two months ahead.” This proposes that the difference of five to twelve students can account for up to a month’s worth of learning for kindergarteners alone. Teaching aides were not sufficient to account for the differences in teacher to student ratio. It is evident that this variable directly impacts the efficacy of every teacher throughout the nation. “The high school transcripts of former STAR students showed that those who had been in smaller classes for at least three years—particularly students from low-income backgrounds—were significantly more likely to graduate from high school…and the gap between African-American students and white students in taking college entrance exams was reduced by 60 percent.” More than twenty years after this study, nothing has been done to reduce class sizes in most counties across the country.  Rarely do intervention methods and adjustments to one aspect so greatly impact achievement. The STAR program provided data and evidence that highlights needs for improvements of class size education policy.

Small class sizes have been found to reduce racial disparities in performance and therefore improve student’s abilities to contribute to society. This reform is not limited to assisting an individual demographic but proves to be helpful across the board for all students. Additionally, this research uncovers benefits that should encourage smaller class sizes. Smaller student to teacher ratios correlate with many instances of early diagnosis for learning disabilities. However, many policy solutions are often considered more cost-effective when contrasted against reductions in class size. For instance, “high value added on standardized test scores also have an impact on such subsequent outcomes for their students as wage earnings.” Some argue that this is a better method to improving student performance.

This is a limited position because, “there are few—if any—policies that have been designed, implemented and evaluated that increase the availability of teachers with highest-score value added and result in higher student achievement.” This plan does not replicate the benefits a reduced class sizes provide.

Finally, class size reduction is most helpful for young children. “In calculating the costs to society, a cost-benefit analysis of the STAR project estimates that reducing class sizes from 22 to 15 in grades K–3 results in a $2 return on every $1 spent.”[9] It seems evident reductions in class size are the most effective way to benefit and improve student progress. During periods of slowed-economic growth and increasing state debt, schools must make difficult budget decisions. Ultimately, small classes are an important budget decision that cannot be ignored. It is unanimously agreed upon that students need an environment that facilitates engagement in the classroom. Limiting class size is just one method to alleviate teacher burden and provide them with enough time to designate per student.

Class size is a factor directly impacted by policy. Policy that limits class size assists students and promotes progress. Policies that increase class size disadvantage students. As Benjamin Franklin said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”


education by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0