Small Classes, Big Possibilities

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

June 30, 2010

A researcher laments the lack of action on the class-size issue despite documented results

The Los Angeles Times recently asked in a front-page headline: "$1 Billion Question: Do Smaller Classes Work?"

While the newspaper's prime interest is in California where Gov. Wilson is trying to reduce the student load in kindergarten through 3rd-grade classrooms, the answer ought to be strikingly clear everywhere, based on nearly two decades of validating research, on common sense and on similarities throughout education. As the National Education Association implored in an Education Week advertisement: "We need a little class."

Indeed, if public education is to be a class act and U.S. schools are to become world class, improvement should start at the class level.

A Domino Effect

Size matters, and small class size matters a great deal for the schooling of young children. The debate over class size still rages—less so on the merits, more so on economics, lack of clarity and terminology—in spite of the compelling evidence.

Perhaps the idea of small classes for students in the early grades is so commonsensical today that educators don't consider it a challenge. Yet education’s leaders must look beyond the surface variables to understand the systemic, domino-effect possibilities of class-size changes.

What other education reform attracts the unbridled support of parents, teachers, researchers, policymakers and even students? One also would expect that business and government leaders, especially those who believe in the concept of span of control, would rush to support a teacher-to-pupil ratio of about one teacher to 15 students.

The span-of-control notion that undergirds many bureaucratic structures is that one manager can efficiently and effectively work with about seven or eight subordinates—presumably, subordinates who can read, write, feed themselves and find their way to the bathroom. In his ongoing plan to reinvent government, Vice President Al Gore urges federal agencies to reduce the span of control from about 1:7 to about 1:15. Surely, our youngest students deserve the same 1:15 consideration. A class-size reduction to 1:15 is one way in K-3 education to address the politically popular conundrum, "less is more."

Documented Results

Conclusive research has shown the benefits of class sizes of 1:15, especially in the primary grades. Since the early 1980s, a large-scale project in Indiana, a major experiment in Tennessee, numerous smaller studies and evaluations of projects that use low adult-to-student ratios have found that youngsters in small classes (1:15 or so) as compared to youngsters in larger classes:

  • obtain higher test scores;
  • participate more in school;
  • demonstrate improved behavior; and
  • retain many benefits of early class-size reductions in their later years of schooling.

These results should not surprise anyone familiar with young children and the schooling process. Perhaps only the skeptics of educational research may be surprised that, at least in the class-size arena, studies support common sense and some consensually validated best practices. What charter school or exclusive private school attracts students by promising large classes? Does home schooling use big classes?

Consider, in addition, the other education efforts that also benefit from the small-class effect: tutorials, apprenticeships, special education, remediation projects such as Reading Recovery and Success for All, mentoring, peer tutoring, Advanced Placement.

Wouldn't an adjustment to smaller classes, especially in the early primary grades, make an exciting platform for the systemic reforms for which most school district reformers clamor?

Major Implications

Early information on the impact of class size, such as the 1978 meta-analysis linking class size to student achievement by Gene Glass and Mary Lee Smith, as well as Educational Research Service reports in 1978 and 1980, showed that small classes bolster student learning. Glen Robinson's synthesis of class-size research in the May 1990 issue of Educational Leadership, work by Robert Slavin and others at Johns Hopkins University, Tennessee's Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) experiment, and Harold Wenglinsky's 1997 Education Testing Service study titled "When Money Matters" have shown that all students can benefit from early instruction in small classes or small groupings and that benefits are differentially distributed. Minority students and youngsters of low socioeconomic status get substantially larger benefits from beginning their schooling in small classes than do other youngsters.

Wenglinsky said it well: "4th graders in smaller-than-average classes are about half a year ahead of 4th graders in larger-than-average classes" and "'The largest effects seem to be for poor students in high-cost areas." The benefits of small classes in early grades have major policy implications for massive redirection of education resources.

Some critics say that the probable costs of small classes do not justify the demonstrated benefits. A reasonable question for them is, "How do you know?" Class-size benefits seldom have been evaluated carefully because small classes are not widely used in public education except for special-needs youngsters. (Aren't all youngsters special?) The full benefits of 1:15 in early primary grades can’t be known until classes of such size are used and evaluated and until the students reach later grades. This is not a quick-fix remedy.

Other critics argue that something else might work better, but they don't provide worthy research-based evidence for their alternative, whether it be charter schooling or vouchers. And if they do offer backup support, their alternatives are usually small-class derivatives, such as tutorials or more special projects.

Teaching Benefits

Having an appropriately sized class allows teachers to employ important teaching strategies that help youngsters learn. Smaller classes also let teachers work closely with the adults at home to improve school-community involvement strategies. Teacher morale improves.

Teachers in small classes can devote more time to individualized attention, engage in more time-on-task instruction and identify precisely and early those student learning problems that can be remediated before a student falls too far behind. A small class can be a family. Student behavior and achievement benefit from improved classroom environments.

In separate critiques of Project STAR, the largest experiment in class-size research, both Frederick Mosteller, an emeritus professor at Harvard, and Donald Orlich of Washington State University identified major positive results that emerge from smaller student-teacher ratios. In the April 1991 issue of Kappan, Orlich wrote, "In my opinion [STAR] is the most significant educational research done in the U.S. during the past 25 years."

In his review of the Tennessee class-size project in the Summer/Fall 1995 issue of the Future of Children, Mosteller suggested that policymakers and school leaders ought to pay heed to the empirical evidence when they decide how to organize students within schools and how to support student learning. He described STAR as "a controlled experiment, which is one of the most important educational investigations ever carried out and illustrates the kind and magnitude of research needed in ... education to strengthen schools."

A Slow Response

Developing appropriately sized classes for early student learning should be the first giant step in moving American education to world-class status. The firm foundation provided by a bold move of this nature can serve as the starting point for systemic improvements to K-12 schools. The paradox here is that the critical politicians and business people who often ask educators to bring about dramatic changes in student outcomes typically proffer ideas that have no research base and never have been tested or evaluated in education. These critics ask for systemic change while serving up a platter containing only special projects and "Band-Aids." Systemic change demands an interconnectedness between one change and others.

A reasonably sized class in the early primary grades is a base for systemic change. The benefits of 1:15 or so in the early grades will trigger changes throughout the entire system and influence legislation and policy in ways that will spawn supportive education practices.

Youngsters who start school in classes of 15 or fewer students need less remediation later. Special education problems are identified early and, once corrected, the youngsters don't spend endless years in the special education spiral. Youngsters in smaller classes seldom are retained in grade. Discipline improves. These benefits will cut costs.

Research shows that the largest impact on student outcomes is achieved when the student enters schooling in the small-class setting. Thus, a preferred strategy for implementing the 1:15 goal is to have the class-size reduction effort begin at kindergarten or even pre-kindergarten and then ripple through the grades, one grade at a time, through about grade 3.

In addition, the STAR research has called into question one popular and expensive remedy: the use of teacher aides. In large classes teachers may send to their aides those students who are disruptive—the very students whom the teacher should be serving on a one-to-one basis. When sent to an aide, these students lose the benefits of the teacher's professional knowledge and skill. They may be given meaningless and repetitive tasks good for little more than keeping them quiet, rather than having their learning difficulties diagnosed and addressed by the classroom professional best trained to deal with them. What systemic changes might these and other adjustments, stemming from a 1:15 ratio, generate throughout schools?

Major Challenges

No one suggests that moving to significantly smaller classes can be accomplished easily. Starting youngsters off in smaller classes offers a severe test of a school district leader’s creativity and management skill.

The most significant challenges include: finding classroom space and qualified teachers, redefining the use of teacher assistants, adjusting class sizes with minimum added expenditures and helping teachers with larger classes understand that student learning needs to be the base for school reform. Fortunately, innovative leaders who implement the solid research findings serve as examples to lead the way.

Today, the question is not "What should we do?" Rather, one should ask, "How can we use these substantial research results?" Here, then, is the real professional challenge: Stop debating what to do, or redirect the debate until better options than appropriately sized classes are available and tested. Instead get serious with the task of using the demonstrated class size results to improve education for all children.

Charles Achilles is a professor of educational administration at Eastern Michigan University, 127 Pittman Hall, Ypsilanti, Mich. 48197. He was a principal investigator of Tennessee's STAR study. E-mail:


Charles Achilles