The class size debate has been raging for years. Common sense leads people to believe that the more students are in a class, the more difficult it is to teach. Therefore smaller class sizes means better learning environments for students, right?
This evidence is supported by a study in Tennessee called Project Star that took place from 1985 to 1989. Tennessee conducted a randomized control trial (which is typically thought of as the most accurate type of research) that inspected the effect of class size on student performance in kindergarten through third grade. Alan Krueger analyzed the data and “proved” that students in smaller classes outperformed those in larger classes, with teacher aides having minimal impact.
However, other studies have been conducted that have found no impact on class size and student performance. Also, these teachers and students were all aware that they were a part of this experiment, which opens the door to the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect refers to the phenomenon of increased productivity in individuals that are aware that they are being observed.
While the research behind class size and student performance seems to be inconclusive, teacher’s sentiments are not. Teachers feel less stressed, believe they can perform better, and give more personalized attention to their students in smaller classes. Teachers in public schools are often underpaid and overworked, and many people point to class size reduction as a way to solve at least part of this problem.
However, class size reduction does not come without consequences. California’s 1996 class size reduction initiative reduced classes from ~30 students per class to 20 but cost about 1 billion dollars annually. To accomodate more classrooms, many new teachers were hired (approximately 25,000). Many of these teachers were uncertified and had no experience, so the state was spending more money on less qualified teachers.
While the debate about class size is nuanced and contains many perspectives, it seems the most common issue is funding. If schools had more money to give to their teachers, would they feel the same stress reduction as a smaller class size? Or would more teachers making the same amount of money help solve the problem? Whatever the answer is, it’s going to cost a lot.