Is a Smaller Class Actually Better?

The hefty price tag that comes with reducing class size may not be worth it, according to a new study.

More one-on-one attention is one of the benefits of having a smaller class. (Photo: Barry Rosenthal)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Over the last few years, class size has become a hot topic in education circles.

Many experts have long preached that smaller is better for students and teachers. Since the 2008 recession, some education watchers have said that class sizes have increased because of tighter budgets; others note that they have shrunk, which helps teachers stress less and students learn more.

However, according to a new study, the benefits of a smaller class size may not outweigh the cost.

The University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education reports that the across-the-board mantra, “smaller is better,” may not be the best tactic for every school. According to The Opportunity Cost of Smaller Classes: A State-By-State Spending Analysis, smaller classes often equal a hefty price tag.

“The cost nationally of maintaining current class sizes, compared to increasing the average by 2 students, is $15.7 billion per year, or an average of $319 per pupil,” the study reports. “Adding the cost of benefits for the extra teachers required to keep class sizes low drives up the estimate to over $20 billion nationally.”

That’s certainly worth examining as more school budgets work with less in their coffers.

Surprisingly, the researchers note that class sizes are actually a bit lower than in the 1999-2000 school year.

“Over the last twelve years, elementary classes dipped and then began rising again (likely due to some states implementing class-size reduction in early elementary years, and then relaxing those requirements),” the report stated. “Secondary classes, in contrast, rose by an average of one student before falling again to an estimated 22.7 students per class.”

But the study cautions that by no means are class-size numbers the same across the country. For example, Oregon had the largest estimated elementary classes at 24.6 students in 2011-12. New York had the smallest at 15.5. California’s secondary classes averaged the largest at 32.3 students. But North Dakota’s secondary classes, which are the smallest, had about 17 students.

“With the exception of the Tennessee STAR study, which has provided the strongest evidence to date of the positive effects of CSR [class-size reduction] in the early grades, much of the more recent research shows negligible or modest positive effects on test scores when class sizes are reduced by one or two students,” Jerusha Conner, education professor at Villanova University, told TakePart.

But she said at the elementary level, small classes may be worth the money.

“There is growing evidence of longer-term benefits, such as higher graduation rates and health outcomes, associated with CSR in the early grades,” she said. 

Obviously, smaller classes mean more teachers, which translates to more salaries, classrooms, and benefits. While budgets vary from state-to-state, the study reports that “in all states, the amount remaining to be reallocated due to small increases in class size would add up to 2-4 percent of total K-12 expenditures.”

Conner cautions, however, that districts should consider the longer-term benefits of smaller classes than simply the bottom line. She said it’s difficult to gauge a price tag for the end result.

“There is growing evidence of longer-term benefits, such as higher graduation rates and health outcomes, associated with CSR in the early grades,” she said. “The research also suggests positive associations with less direct indicators of student performance, such as students’ sense of belonging at school or the quality of student-teacher relationships, which are important drivers of student engagement in learning.”

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