The Hippo


Oct 22, 2019








Smaller is better
Class sizes do matter


 How many kids in a classroom is too many? When Manchester started the school year with some high school classrooms exceeding 40 students, an outcry from the public suggested that that number was too high. But what is the “right” number?

State standards say the maximum high school classroom should have 30 students. While Queen City administrators have tried to address overcrowding, many classrooms still exceed 30. 
Thirty is the max, but no education official is arguing that 30 is ideal. In an ideal world free of budgetary constraints, elementary school classrooms would have 15 to 17 students, officials say. It’s generally accepted that high school classrooms can be larger than elementary classrooms. At the secondary level, along with being scheduled entirely differently, instruction can be more standardized, said Michael Middleton, chairman of the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire. 
“If teachers have time to respond and engage students, then everything kind of flows from there,” McQuillan said. “A key factor is how quickly and intensively teachers respond to students’ written work. It’s a key building block.”
Smaller class size leads to more time for individualized instruction, which breeds a higher quality education. Teachers with smaller classes have more time to plan and to respond to students’ written work, officials say. 
Mark McQuillan, dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, said keeping elementary school classrooms in the low 20s is largely considered reasonable and appropriate. At the high school level, McQuillan said, keeping classes in the mid-20s is reasonable. 
“Then you really have a running shot at making a fundamental difference in the lives of the students,” McQuillan added. 
In the 1970s, researchers took a look at classroom sizes in Tennessee. Not only did researchers find students in 15- to 17-person classrooms experienced persistent gains in educational achievement, those same students also experienced educational gains after they were moved back into an average class size, Middleton said. The effect is stronger in under-represented groups, such as students in a lower socioeconomic class. Middleton said he hasn’t seen research that suggests an ideal high school classroom size, but if financial constraints were removed, the same 15- to 17-student range would likely be ideal. 
Most states have developed policies restricting classroom sizes, though many have since relaxed standards as they’ve run up against economic realities, Middleton said. 
“[School boards] have to struggle over it,” McQuillan said. “Keeping it low means investing in staff, so keeping the numbers at a lower size is expensive, but it’s important that it be expensive, if you want to keep with the quality that you’re looking for.”
Teaching a crowd
Albeit a big one, class size is one variable. If teachers are utilizing ineffective strategies, even in a small classroom, educational achievement will be low. While there are challenges in a large class, a teacher utilizing innovative strategies could still be successful, Middleton said. 
“But it’s less likely they’d be able to use a more inquiry-based approach to education, which has benefits linked to achievement,” Middleton said. 
“I don’t know that they can [overcome overcrowded classes],” McQuillan said. “There’s no workaround on this issue when you’re real function is to spend as much time on the content of a given subject.”
Reducing a single classroom from 35 students to 30 students might make a difference in the quality of the 5/2/2013 - education, but it’s certainly not a cure-all, since the class is still large at 30 students. The bigger issue is the teacher with a 35-student class might have five classes with 35 students — that’s almost like teaching another whole class. That adds considerable time commitments to a teacher’s workload in terms of grading, Middleton said. 
“That impacts the teacher’s stress, the teacher’s satisfaction with the job,” Middleton said. “You just can’t be as successful when you’re stretched that thin. You can’t meet the individual needs. It leads to a decreasing morale and a decreasing belief in effectiveness.”
In other countries, teachers teach fewer hours and have more time for one-on-one attention and planning, Middleton said. 
“We know comparatively, our teachers aren’t getting the time they need to prepare,” he said. 
Some students are going to be more prepared, and they’ll likely be successful even in a big class. In a large class, teachers would have little time to challenge the highest achievers, provide more attention to struggling students,  or work with students in the middle, who might be getting through classes, but without mastering concepts, Middleton said. 
“[Students in the middle] just kind of plod along,” Middleton said. 

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