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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

Why Smaller Classes are Essential for The Success and Well-Being of Your Child. 94

In this post I discuss how class sizes are one of the biggest, yet most overlooked problems in the current education system – both when it comes to facilitating students academic achievement as well as nurturing their overall wellbeing and development on a personal level.  The questions I raise in this post has to do with the priorities we make within the education system, and so for our children and ultimately for the future of humanity. They are questions I suggest that every parent, teacher and concerned citizen considers for themselves, because although it seems trivial, this is an example of the disintegration of our education systems through a hostile takeover by the corporate world, that we’ve come to take for granted as ‘the way it is’. But it doesn’t have to be.

I will begin by sharing recent experiences I had within teaching here in Sweden to exemplify how grave this problem is and how it can be seen having tragic consequences in the seemingly trivial events of our children’s daily lives.

Recently I was teaching a three-year old student in a preschool. While we were playing, he found a tiny Lego wheel on the floor and joyously said, “It belongs in the Lego box!” So together we walked out of the playroom and with determination he marched towards the Lego box in the other side of the room. Meanwhile, one of his regular teachers had heard that we were going to the Lego box and promptly stopped him in his tracks, telling him to go and clean up where he had played first. I saw that she had misunderstood his intentions and I explained to her that he was simply on his way to put the Lego piece back in the box. It was interesting because I could see that she was rather embarrassed over having gotten strict towards him in assuming that he was just leaving what he’d been playing with to now play with something else. The more important question is: what did the boy learn from this experience?

To see the consequence of this type of misalignment between the teacher and the student, let’s look at another example, this time with an older student that has already been conditioned through the education system for a number of years:

I was walking down the hall at another school with a teacher when a 6-year-old student came in from the outside. As soon as he saw the teacher, he quickly started explaining how he was just going to the bathroom and that he was not wearing his shoes indoors. Already before she had even opened her mouth, he was already preparing himself to get in trouble, assuming that he would get in trouble, even though what he was doing was perfectly fine. Situations like this happen all the time in schools all over the world, and as trivial as they seem, they have the consequence that many children become timid and afraid of adults, always feeling like they’ve done something wrong, even if they haven’t. This on the other hand creates distrust, resentment and a desire to rebel within the children, perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy where the children become that which the teachers expect them to be. And as adults, who do these children become? Followers or leaders? Strong, independent human beings that take responsibility for their own lives or apathetic, confused teenagers that never really grow up?

When teachers become snappy with students and when they make quick judgmental assumptions about children in general, it is not because these teachers are ‘bad’. What many outside the school system might not realize is that there are so many students and so much going on at one time that the teachers simply can’t see everything or direct every situation. Therefore they come to rely on assumptions about how children tend to act. This is not optimal, it is not even acceptable – but it is the education system and the conditions we have accepted for our children.

An example of how a teacher can be so overwhelmed that she compromises her ability to effectively teach, was a situation where I was waiting for a 1.grade student while standing in the class where the teacher was teaching the rest of the students. The students were moving around, making noise and there was a general sense of confusion. The teacher (who is new) stood in the doorway and she yelled at a student for walking out of class saying that he couldn’t do the assignment and that she could do it. She told him that it was disrespectful and that it is his own responsibility to learn. As he walked out the door, another student came up behind her with a timid look on his face holding a paper. He quietly asked what he was supposed to do and she brushed him off and told him to go back to his seat. This was significant to me, because the student had simply asked a question, but because the teacher was already involved with a conflict with another student, she took her irritation and frustration out on this student, who went back to his seat with a despondent look on his face. Mind you, these are 7 year olds we are talking about.

Now – what I would like to clarify is that none of these examples has to do with teachers being ‘bad teachers’. Granted, there are teachers who aren’t necessarily meant for the teaching-profession, but the reason why I share these examples is to show that one of the biggest problems for teachers today is that there are simply too many children in the classroom. It affects the teacher’s ability to teach effectively.

I have furthermore seen for myself how these seemingly small mistakes, where teachers make assumptions or rush to conclusions, can create big consequences for a child’s life and self-development, especially when they are repeated on a daily basis over and over again. And the bigger the class is, the more students the teachers have to oversee, the easier it is to make assumptions and ‘small mistakes’.

In my line of work I see many different schools throughout the week and in reflecting over which schools are more effective in their approach towards children, I’ve been surprised to see how it is not necessarily that certain schools have higher standards or better teachers, but simply that they are smaller. I for example go to a public school in a rural area that has the exact same budget and curriculum as any other public school. But a big difference is that it is about the third of the size of other schools. All the children know each other and they know all the teachers and the teachers know them. Unlike most schools, the school was built in 1997 and was designed by an architect. Most schools here in Sweden are either archaic buildings from the 60’s and 70’s that are drawing their last breaths or are designed ‘economically’ to hold large capacities of students. Classroom sizes may seem like a small detail that shouldn’t affect the actual learning environment, but it does – greatly so.

No teachers can effectively teach 20 or 30 students at once, let alone 50 or 60, as is the case in some countries. Furthermore, the younger the child is, the more supervision and support is needed and I would go as far as saying that any child’s optimal learning environment would be based on one-on-one lessons, at the very least no more than 5-10 students in the classroom. (This may sound controversial and for those interested in reading more about this, I wrote a blog post about this as well which you can find here.) Unfortunately most of us are so used to the cramped and smelly classrooms housing at least 30 students that we don’t even consider the possibility that it could be different, let alone that it should be different.

Some researchers claim, as for example the ones quoted in this[1] article from The Economist, that classroom sizes doesn’t matter as much and that raising teachers salaries is a much more equitable way to optimize education. They used the example from primary schools in China where there can easily be up to 50 students in a class. The problem is that the supposed ’effectiveness’ of such classes is based on strict discipline and a model of teaching where children are expected to be passive recipients of rote learning and memorization techniques, models that may produce great results in grades, but that leaves very little room for the students self-expression, creativity and critical thinking skills to flourish. Other studies such as the one mentioned in this[2] article claims that ‘teacher quality’ is more important than smaller classroom for students overall academic performance, but fails to consider that an education that does not only provide students with the best possible learning environment, but also supports them to grow and develop on a personal level, requires both the best teachers and smaller classrooms; one certainly should exclude the other. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking comes from an outlook on education that first and foremost looks at keeping budgets down while ensuring students academic performance.

In alignment with my direct experiences from working in schools, many studies does however accredit small class sizes to students academic achievement as well as to their overall wellbeing on a personal level. To show the overwhelming evidence of the importance of class sizes, I’ll refer you to a large selection of studies done in recent years showing exactly this.[i]

Anyone who has tried teaching or directing a class of more than 10 students knows what a challenge it is, and how difficult it is to make sure that each student is given individual attention to suit their needs. Instead teachers are forced to provide students with standardized lessons that is supposed to at least fulfill the academic needs of the majority of a class and it might teach most students how to read, write and do math at a basic level – but the question is how low a standard we will accept just to keep the budgets on education down? Simply because something works on a marginal level, it does certainly not mean that this is optimal – and as a society we ought to look ourselves deep in the mirror and ask why it is we’re not providing our children with the most optimal learning environment possible? Why are we accepting non-supportive learning environments as the norm and even more so: why do we believe that simply because it is the norm, it is automatically the most optimal? With smaller classes, optimally no more than 5 students pr. teacher, each child will be able to be supported on an individual level, which in turn will enable the teacher to assist the child to develop their full potential, based on their individual natural learning ability.

If we truly valued our children’s lives and with them, the future, wouldn’t we want to create the best possible learning environment? And how can we even pretend to answer that question with a solid ‘YES’ when we so blatantly accept our education system to be subject to a hostile takeover by the corporate system?

At the Equal Life Foundation we are proposing real long-term solutions, solutions that involve parents getting much more involved in their child’s education. We are also proposing solutions that will enable parents to take more active part in their child’s education, thereby relieving the pressure on the education system to live up to the task of raising and educating our children, a task that it is in no way equipped to handle. There is absolutely no reason why all children should not be given the best possible education available – and when the sole argument against this fact, is money, we know that there is something utterly wrong with the way we prioritize in this world. This is not a responsibility that solely falls upon the politicians to sort out. It is in fact the responsibility of all of us, because it is our future that is at stake, the future of our children, of this planet, and of life, as we know it. Get involved today, investigate the education system in your area, expose the denigration of the school-system and join us as we embark on this virgin-voyage to, for the first time in human history, create a life we can actually be proud of.

  1. [i] Zyngier, David. (2014). Class size and academic results, with a focus on children from culturally, linguistically and economically disenfranchised communities. Evidence Base, issue 1, 2014.  In this research summary, the author examined class size reduction and its effect on student achievement by analyzing 112 peer-reviewed studies, and showed that the overwhelming majority of these studies found that smaller classes have a significant impact on student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap. The author writes, “Noticeably, of the papers included in this review, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure.”

  2. Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). Does Class Size Matter? National Education Policy Center Policy Brief. “This policy brief summarizes the academic literature on the impact of class size and finds that class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.  Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.”

  3. Achilles, C. M., et al. (2012). Class-size Policy: The Star Experiment and Related Class-size Studies. NCPEA Policy Brief, 1.2. “A reanalysis of the Tennessee STAR experiment found that small classes (15-17 pupils) in kindergarten through third grade (K-3) provide short- and long-term benefits for students, teachers, and society at large….poor, minority, and male students reap extra benefits in terms of improved test outcomes, school engagement, and reduced grade retention and dropout rates.”

  4. Shin, Yongyun (2012). Do Black Children Benefit More From Small Classes? Multivariate Instrumental Variable Estimators With Ignorable Missing Data. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 37 (4). An analysis of experimental data from Tennessee’s Student-Teacher  Achievement Ratio study show that, for Black students, reduced class size caused higher academic achievement in the four domains (reading, mathematics, listening, and word recognition skills) each year from kindergarten to third grade, while for other students, it improved the four outcomes except for first-grade listening in kindergarten and first grade only. Evidence shows that Black students benefit more than others from reduced class size in first-, second-, and third-grade academic achievement, substantially narrowing the achievement gap.

  5. Dynarski, S., Hyman, J., & Schanzenbach, D. W. (2011). Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investment on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion. NBER Working Paper. “The study concludes that attending a small class increases the rate of college attendance, with the largest positive impact on black and poor students.  Among those students with the lowest predicted probability of attending college, a small class increased rate of college attendance by 11 percentage points.  Attending a small class also increases the probability of earning a college degree, and to shift students toward earning degrees in high-earning fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), business and economics.”

  6. Bascia, N. (2010). Reducing Class Size: What do we Know?. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Reviewed research base and analyzed statistical data collected by the Canadian Ministry of Education between 2003-04 and 2007-08. Involved field research in eight school districts, 24 schools, and 84 classrooms. Classroom observations were undertaken at each primary grade level, from K-3. All teachers were surveyed in each school. Parent surveys included representation from every school district in Ontario. “Nearly three-quarters of the primary teachers reported that the quality of their relationships with students had improved as a result of the smaller class size, and two-thirds said their students were more engaged in learning than before class size reduction…Many parents of children enrolled in smaller classes reported that their children appeared to be learning more and were more comfortable at school.”

  7. Heilig, J.V., Williams, A. & Jez, S.U. (2010). Input and student achievement: An analysis of Latina/o –serving urban elementary schools. Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) Journal, 48 -58. Examined readily available input variables in Texas Ed. databases in three of the four largest TX districts (Houston, Dallas and Austin) in 419 schools that are majority Latina/o over 4 years (2005-2008). Evaluated variables such as school funding expenditures, tests scores, ethnicity, and teacher certification, teacher-student ratio and degree obtainment to identify any impact on student achievement in urban elementary schools. “Most powerful predictor of changes in reading and math in all models was decreasing the student teacher ratio…. Essentially, decreasing the student teacher ratio by 1 percentage point would increase the percentage of students proficient on the TAKS by 3% for reading and by 4% for math (p54).”

  8. Jepsen, C., & Rivkin, S. (2009). Potential Tradeoff between Teacher Quality and Class Size. Journal of Human Resources, 44.1. This paper investigates the effects of California’s billion-dollar class-size-reduction program on student achievement;….”[T]here is little or no support for the hypotheses that the need to hire large numbers of teachers following the adoption of CSR [class-size reduction] led to a lasting reduction in the quality of instruction,” according to the study. “Overall, the findings suggest that CSR increased achievement in the early grades for all demographic groups….”

  9. Konstantopoulos, S., & Chun, V. (2009). What Are the Long-Term Effects of Small Classes on the Achievement Gap? Evidence from the Lasting Benefits Study,” American Journal of Education 116.  A summary of the effects of smaller classes on the achievement gap through eighth grade.  Effects significant in all tested subjects, and for those in smaller classes for four years, very substantial. “The results … provided convincing evidence that all types of students (e.g., low, medium, and high achievers) benefit from being in small classes (in early grades) across all achievement tests…. in certain grades, in reading and science, the cumulative effects of small classes for low achievers are substantial in magnitude and significantly different from those for high achievers.  Thus, class size reduction appears to be an intervention that increases the achievement levels for all students while simultaneously reducing the achievement gap.”

  10. Babcock, P., & Betts, J.R. (2009). Reduced Class Distinctions: Effort, Ability, and The Education Production Function. Journal of Urban Economics, Vol. 65, pp. 314–322. Empirical findings indicate that class-size expansion may reduce gains for low-effort students more than for high-effort students, Results here…suggest …that larger gains for disadvantaged students may have occurred because small classes allow teachers to incentivize disengaged students more effectively, or because students are better able connect to the school setting in small classes.

  11. King, J. (2008). Bridging the Achievement Gap: Learning from three charter schools (part 1), (part 2), (part 3), (part 4). Columbia University (Doctoral Dissertation).  “School size and class size are linked to the five key cultural values ….: a culture that teaches effort yields success; a culture of high expectations; a disciplined culture; a culture built on relationships; and a culture of excellence in teaching. Small classes and small overall student loads allow teachers to spend more time working with individual students to help them track their own progress and develop their skills – thus reinforcing the principle that effort yields success. High expectations are easier to maintain when teachers know their students well (because of small school and class size), can identify whether a student’s poor performance on an assessment reflects deficiencies in their effort or their understanding, and can respond accordingly.”

  12. Lubienski, S. T., (2008). Achievement Differences and School Type: The Role of School Climate, Teacher Certification, and Instruction. American Journal of Education, 115. Multilevel analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics data for over 270,000 fourth and eighth graders in over 10,000 schools finds that smaller class size is significantly correlated with higher achievement.

  13. Magnuson, K.A., Ruhm, C. & Waldfogel, J. (2007). The persistence of preschool effects: Do subsequent classroom experiences matter? Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22(1), 18 – 38. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort (ECLS-K), it has been demonstrated that children who attended preschool enter public schools with higher levels of academic skills than their peers who experienced other types of child care. This study considered … the types of classrooms in which students who did not attend preschool “catch up” to their counterparts who did. The findings suggested that most of the preschool-related gap in academic skills at school entry is quickly eliminated for children placed in small classrooms and classrooms providing high levels of reading instruction. Conversely, the initial disparities persisted for children experiencing large classes and lower levels of reading instruction.

  14. Ready, D. D., & Lee, V. E. (2006/7). Optimal Context Size in Elementary Schools: Disentangling the Effects of Class Size and School Size. Brookings Papers on Education Policy, pp. 99-135. Study finds that class size rather than school size makes a positive difference, and suggests that “if children remained in the same elementary school for five or six years … differences would be very substantial: a roughly 10-point advantage for children in small over large classes by the end of sixth grade, or 4.5 months of additional learning.”

  15. Unlu, F. (2005). California Class Size Reduction Reform: New Findings from the NAEP. Princeton University. Study found that California’s fourth grade students who were in reduced class sizes in grades K-3 had substantially higher scores in math on the national assessments (NAEPs), of between 0.2 and 0.3 of a standard deviation, compared to closely matched students who were not in smaller classes.

  16. Finn, J. D., et. al. (2005). Small Classes in the Early Grades, Academic Achievement, and Graduating From High School. Journal of Educational Psychology. “For all students combined, 4 years of a small class in K–3 were associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of graduating from high school; the odds of graduating after having attended small classes for 4 years were increased by about 80.0%. Furthermore, the impact of attending a small class was especially noteworthy for students from low-income homes. Three years or more of small classes affected the graduation rates of low-SES students, increasing the odds of graduating by about 67.0% for 3 years and more than doubling the odds for 4 years.”

  17. Dee, T. (2004). Teachers, Race, and Student Achievement in a Randomized Experiment. Review of Economics and Statistics. Study showing that student/teacher racial differences appear to negatively effect student achievement in regular size classes. Yet in small classes, students learn more, and racial disparity between teacher and student has no significant effect.

  18. Barton, P. (2003). Parsing the Achievement Gap. Educational Testing Service.  Despite the fact that class size reduction has been shown to narrow the achievement gap, this study reveals that schools with large numbers of black and/or limited English students are more likely to have classes of 25 or more.

  19. Institute of Education Sciences. (2003). Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported by Rigorous Evidence: A User Friendly Guide. U.S. Department of Education. Class size reduction identified as one of four K-12 education reforms proven to increase learning.

  20. Krueger, A. B., & Whitmore, D. M. (2002). Would Smaller Classes Help Close the Black-White Achievement Gap? from: Bridging the Achievement Gap, Brookings Institution Press. “Our analysis of the STAR experiment indicates that students who attend smaller classes in the early grades tend to have higher test scores while they are enrolled in those grades than their counterparts who attend larger classes….Moreover, black students tend to advance further… from attending a small class than do white students, both while they are in a small class and afterwards. For black students, we also find that being assigned to a small class for an average of two years in grade K – 3 is associated with an increased probability of subsequently taking the ACT or SAT college entrance exam, and 0.15-.20 standard deviation higher average score on the exam.”

  21. Fidler, P., Phd. (2002). The Impact of class size reduction on student achievement.  Los Angeles Unified School District, Publication No. 109. “The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of class size reduction (CSR) on achievement among 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students with different numbers of years of participation in CSR…. We believe that CSR will help to increase student achievement, especially for students who need it the most: low SES students, limited English-speaking students, and those students in inner-city schools…. It can be concluded from the results of this study that CSR does help to increase language achievement gains, especially for ELL students.”

  22. Biddle, B., & Berliner, D. (2002).  What Research Says About Small Classes and Their Effects.Wested. “When it is planned thoughtfully and funded adequately, long-term exposure to small classes in the early grades generates substantial advantages for students in American schools, and those extra gains are greater the longer students are exposed to those classes.”

  23. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). School-Level Correlates of Academic Achievement: Student Assessment Scores in SASS Public Schools. NCES 2000-303, by Donald McLaughlin and Gili Drori. Project Officer: Michael Ross. Washington DC. The most authoritative study showing the importance of class size is in all grades, analyzing the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools, as measured by performance on the NAEP (national) exams.  After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be positively correlated with student performance was class size, not school size, not teacher qualifications, nor any other variable that the researchers could identify. Student achievement was even more strongly linked to smaller classes in the upper rather than the lower grades.

  24. Grissmer, D., et. al. (2000). Improving Student Achievement: What State NAEP Test Scores Tell Us. RAND. “States with higher per-pupil spending, lower class sizes and more pre-K have higher achievement levels. Disadvantaged children are the most likely to gain benefits from such programs.”

  25. Pritchard, I. (1999). Reducing class size: What do we know? U.S. Department of Education. A comprehensive and wide-scale analysis of CSR analyses, experimental studies and state initiatives. “Researchers have used various techniques to study how class size affects the quality of education.… Overall, however, the pattern of research findings points more and more clearly toward the beneficial effects of reducing class size.

  26. Bracey, G. (1999) Distortion and Disinformation about Class Size Reduction. EDDRA. Critique of Hanushek’s analyses of class size reduction.

  27. Cromwell, S. (1998). Are smaller Classes the Answer? Education World. Thorough analysis of contemporary research articles evincing the benefits of smaller class sizes.

  28. Achilles, C. M. (1997). Small Classes, Big Possibilities. The School Administrator. “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.”

  29. NCTE: National Council of Teachers of English. (1996). Statement on Class Size and Teacher Workload: Elementary. Guideline for NCTE’s position on educational issues is in strong support of smaller class sizes, complete with facts and challenges. All of the major professional organizations in the field of composition recommend course sizes of no more than twenty students for K-1, based on the literature on class size and writing.

  30. Mosteller, F. (1995).The Tennessee Study of class size in the early school grades. (1995). The Future of Children, 5.2. Formidable results from the historic large-scale experiment for early grades, Project STAR. “After four years, it was clear that smaller classes did produce substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies and that the effect of small class size on the achievement of minority children was initially about double that observed for majority children….”

  31. AEU Fact Sheet Number 1. (1995).Class sizes do matter. Australian Education Union. Fact sheet with evidence from class size research projects and reading list for the general public.

  32. Boozer, M., & Rouse, C. (1995). Intraschool variation in class size: patterns and implications. NBER Working Paper, No.5144. “We find that not only are blacks in schools with larger average class sizes, but they are also in larger classes within schools, conditional on class type…it appears that smaller classes at the eighth grade lead to larger test score gains from eighth to tenth grade and that differences in class size can explain approximately 15% of the black-white difference in educational achievement.” – Source:

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