Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Barriers/Class Size

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How can class size act as a barrier to effective education?

Pupil-Teacher ratio and class size are two terms that educators often use as synonyms. Other researchers prefer to distinguish between the two illustrating vast differences in data conclusions. “Pupil teacher ratio is the number of students at a site divided by the number of teachers, staff, and/or adults at the site. The divisor used in determining pupil-teacher ratio varies according to different definitions. […] Class size is the number of students regularly in a teachers room” (a helpful link about student-teacher ratio). For the purpose of this paper and the information within, the definition of the pupil-teacher ratio will the number of students in a given classroom divided by the number of teachers in a given classroom, making the definition synonymous with class size.

The Importance of a Smaller Class Size[edit]

Through studies, statistics, and meta-analyses, it seems convincing that a smaller teacher to student ratio is beneficial. With a smaller class size the teacher can develop a relationship with each of the students paying them individual attention and treating them as equals. With smaller classes the teacher will have to spend less time on gaining control in the classroom (NEA: Class Size). This is extremely important in the public school system today because teachers must focus on meeting their requirements with SOLs. With this extra time the instructor could introduce new and exciting material that not only relates to the class requirement, but is also fresh and enjoyable for the students. Fewer students per teacher would make students feel safer socially and physically (NEA: Class Size). Public schools have grown enormous because of our country’s exponential population growth and sometimes crowded hallways can be intimidating. In a smaller classroom these students might feel at ease because of the familiarity of their classmates. This comfort might also encourage students who are more reserved during class to participate during lessons without suffering the pressure of classmates. Finally, a class with fewer students would give teachers fewer overall students and would allow for the chance of developing a relationship with the students’ parents. In this scenario contact between teachers and parents would be less tense and it would eliminate the need for parent-teacher conferences. This would also give the chance for teachers to update parents on the positive things their kids are doing rather than only notifying them about the negative behavior.

Past Research on Class Size[edit]

The issue of pupil to student ratio has become extremely important during the Twentieth Century because of the increased social value of education. During the Twentieth Century education has been much more accessible because of public school funding and has grown significantly because of immigration, integration, and the astounding growth in population. Although the issue has become more important in recent times the idea was explored as far back as the late 1800s when J.M. Rice began a study of the topic (Porwoll). “In a 1902 study, Rice concluded that there was no relationship between class size and student achievement” (Molnar). Since then there have been other studies that have shown far different results. In the 1950s Howard Blake did a study with conclusions showing that 16 out of 22 students responded positively to learning in a smaller class (Molnar).

Project STAR[edit]

YouTube video: ad for class size reduction

Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) was a study conducted in Tennessee in reference to class sizes and how they affect the success of students. The project began in 1985 as Kindergarteners were randomly selected and were placed in classes of about fifteen to represent a small class size, and about 22 to represent a regular class size. The study was concluded in 1989 when the students finished the Third Grade, however, the results persisted.

“By the end of the third grade, students in Project STAR who had been randomly assigned to small classes outperformed their counterparts by an average of 4.6 months of schooling in reading, 4.7 months of schooling in word study skills, and 2.8 months of schooling in math. One year after the end of Project STAR, a follow-up study showed that fourth grade students who had formerly been in the small classes showed more initiative, participated more willingly, showed greater effort, and were more engaged in class and school activities than their counterparts who had been assigned to regular size classes during the Project STAR study” [1]. The effects of the small class instruction continued through middle and high school illustrating that the effected student could read at more than one grade level above their opposing group [2].

As the young adults entered high school they continued to retain results from their Kindergarten to Third grade education. The students instructed in the smaller class were more likely to be enrolled in advanced classes, “graduate on time (72 percent of students, versus 66 percent from regular classes),” and graduate with an honors designation (NEA: Class Size).

National Education Association (NEA)[edit]

“The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education” (NEA: About NEA). They support the reduction of class sizes and based on research funded by the Association, they recommend that the class size be 15 students and even smaller class sizes for students requiring extraordinary needs. The NEA currently supports almost 50 bills in Congress and have funded educational research like Project STAR.

Economic Impact of Smaller Class Size[edit]

Like all things, the benefits of smaller Student-Teacher Ratios cost extra money. With smaller class sizes, the demand for more teachers is inevitable and there along with the need of more classrooms in which they can teach. “The United States began the decade of the 1980s with elementary and secondary school budget of about one-hundred fifty billion dollars or about seven-hundred fifty dollars for every person in the country” (School Class Size). The money for public schools is allocated by the State Government’s budget which has not yet found extra for this proposal. Project STAR alone cost twelve million dollars and the average teacher income for the 2004-2005 school year was almost fifty thousand dollars [3]. Because of this budget problem the only alternative for small class instruction is home schooling or private schooling. Private schools have fewer enrolled students in general and frequently the class sizes are below fifteen from pre-school through high school.


Small class instruction has proven to be successful and educators must strive to lower class sizes. If this was accomplished qualified teachers could instruct in a smaller setting developing the students as individuals and continuing their success. Fewer students in each class would make schools safer, more intimate and more concentrated.

Often students feel neglected when they are not able to receive attention from their teacher. If students are feeling “not good enough” to accomplish certain tasks even though they are fully capable of doing so, it will drastically affect their grades and motivation to learn. This is when the teacher has to come back into play and make sure each student is getting the attention that is necessary. Clearly every student is different and some students do not want to be bothered with the teacher and others love to constantly have the teacher helping them. If there are too many students in a classroom it is almost impossible for one teacher to make sure every student is satisfied and understanding his or her way of teaching. Which is why the NEA is correct in supporting fewer students per classroom, to keep the learning on an uphill climb.

Multiple Choice[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Who conducted the first class size study?
A. J. M. Rice
B. The NEA
C. Project STAR
D. Tennessee state government

A. J. M. Rice

What is a positive aspect of a lower teacher-student ratio?
A. Lower taxes
B. Higher teacher salaries
C. Individualized attention
D. All of the above

C. Individualized attention

What is one negative aspect of a lower teacher-student ratio?
A. Smaller vocabulary
B. Fewer perspectives during class participation
C. Fewer field trips
D. All of the above

B. Fewer perspectives during class participation

When did Project STAR begin?
A. 1978
B. 1900
C. 1985
D. 1989

C. 1985

Project Star began with which grade level?
A. Third
B. Eighth
C. First
D. Kindergarten

D. Kindergarten

All of the following are cons to having smaller classrooms except?
A. Hiring more teachers
B. Needing more space
C. More personal attention
D. More funding needed

C. More personal attention

Why would teachers enjoy smaller classrooms?
A. Less papers to grade
B. Ability to make sure all students are learning
C. Same pay for less work
D. All of the above

B. Ability to make sure all students are learning

What will children gain from having smaller classrooms?
A. Math Skills
B. Writing Skills
C. Confidence
D. Happiness

C. Confidence

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

What are the effects of having a lower Student-Teacher Ratio?

With fewer students per teacher teachers can focus more on student’s individual needs. The teachers can pace themselves by the needs of the students. Students will be more involved in the courses material. During class discussion they will be more likely to share their opinion because of the fewer classmates. The teachers will be able to have the chance to develop a personal relationship with their students parents, eliminating the need for parent-teacher conferences and keeping the parents informed. With fewer students per teacher students will feel safer at school and will be given the opportunity to develop friendships amongst them. Teachers will have greater control over their classes and be able to insert extracurricular activities into class time keeping kids interested and excited to learn. Students will carry their intimate learning experiences with them beyond elementary and middle school and will continue to excel throughout high school and college. With a smaller student to teacher ratio, schools will have to hire more teachers as well as more classes. In turn, the Government must allocate billions of dollars to the public school system to pay for the newly added teachers and classrooms. Overall, the lower student teacher ratio is very beneficial to the affected students.

There are several effects for having a lower student-teacher ratio. I believe that the students would be effected in a positive way in a smaller classroom. The teachers would be able to take more time with each student one on one and have a better relationship with each student. The students would be more inclined on speaking up in class with answering or asking questions because of a smaller peer group to do it in front of. The teachers would be able to focus better on what they are teaching and their lessons instead of having as many students to try to keep quite or make sure they are listening and behaving. The students would benefit from the closer relationships with the teachers and classmates and will be able to use that along their education experiences and life experiences. Having smaller student-teacher ratios means that more teachers will have to be hired and paid, which in turn means more money for the government to put aside to go toward education. But I personally believe that the education of our students is the future for this country and the government should want to put more money toward education to improve it. —Julieann Murphy