Does Class Size Matter?

Does class size matter universal
skynesher/Getty Images

Maybe your first grader came home excited to tell you about all twenty-seven of her new classmates and you freaked. Maybe you’re considering shelling out for that fancy Montessori school that promises no more than eight kids to a class. Whatever the reason, you’re here because you’re wondering whether class size really matters—and the short answer is, yes, it absolutely does. Read on to learn more about why small classes are preferable, plus how you can help enhance your child’s learning experience even in a larger classroom (‘cause sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles).

Meet the experts

Does Class Size Matter?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal ‘yes.’ “Class size matters to kids both academically and emotionally,” says Knight, adding that it has a huge impact on teachers, too—namely because teachers need to differentiate their teaching in all subject matters in order to meet the needs of kids with differing academic abilities, and this is much easier to do with, well, fewer of them. Haimson confirms that “smaller classes lead to better outcomes in every way that can be measured,” and there’s a huge body of evidence to support that bold claim. 

What are the benefits of smaller class sizes?

We touched on this already, but Knight tells us that smaller class sizes allow teachers to better address the needs of all the students, giving extra attention to those who are struggling with the subject matter and more in-depth material to those who are excelling and at risk of getting bored. 

This applies not only to academics, but also to social emotional learning: “Students will have their feelings hurt on the playground, they will have arguments with good friends and they will have personal feelings from home that come up in the classroom. In order for children to have a rich learning environment, they need to feel emotionally supported…[and] the teacher is the main emotional support in the classroom,” says Knight. A teacher’s ability to meet each student where they’re at—both emotionally and academically—ultimately determines how rich the learning environment will be for everyone, and this is much more difficult for one person to accomplish with 30 students than with, say, 20. (Makes sense, right?)

Per Haimeson, smaller class sizes result in “better test scores, better grades, fewer disciplinary problems, and students who are more likely to graduate from high school on time, go onto college and get STEM degrees.” Smaller classes are also correlated with lower teacher attrition rates, especially in high needs schools, which should come as no surprise.

What’s more, research—like this 2012 study published in the Journal of Education and Behavioral Statistics—has shown that class size reduction is one of very few education reforms that narrows the achievement/opportunity gap between students of different racial and economic backgrounds. In fact, “students who are Hispanic or Black receive twice the benefits of average white students,” says Haimeson, so for students in underserved communities, small class sizes can have a particularly profound impact on broader life outcomes.

How big is too big?

OK, so there’s an ironclad case for smaller class sizes, but what does that look like exactly? Both experts agree that the smallest classes are most important in the early grades (i.e., K-3). “During these younger years teachers need to spend a lot of time teaching students their foundational tools in reading, writing, math and more. Additionally, during this age range, children are really growing and learning emotionally and therefore need a lot of support when feelings arise,” explains Knight.

As such, the ideal class size for early grade schoolers is between 14 and 20 students, while older kids can fare fine in slightly larger classes—a recommendation reflected in the fact that NYC just passed a law that will cap public school class sizes at 20 for grades K-3, 23 for grades 4-8 and 25 in high schools. (Note: Most elite public schools cap class sizes at 15 across the board.)

What can I do if my kid is in a larger class?

We know that smaller classes are beneficial for students, but many school districts (most, in fact) have not implemented hard caps that reflect the ideal numbers mentioned above. As such, there’s a good chance your own kid’s class size falls into the ‘too big’ category if they’re attending public school. Don’t despair—no child is doomed to fail just because there are a few extra students in the classroom. That said, if your child is in a school with larger class sizes, there are a few ways you can offset the downside of the situation.

1. Communicate about your kid

It takes time for teachers to get to know their students, and even moreso when the class sizes are large. Parents can facilitate the getting-to-know you process by providing the teacher with important information, including any life changes the child might be coping with (e.g., divorce, death of a loved one, a recent move), as well as the child’s general interests and any emotional or academic challenges.

2. Find out how you can help

Teachers who are managing large class sizes need as much help as they can get, but you won’t know what kind of support they need unless you ask. In some cases, a parent volunteer might be a welcome addition to the classroom; in others, the teacher might simply need help getting more supplies. Ultimately, when the teacher’s needs are met, the whole classroom runs more smoothly and everyone wins.

3. Take advantage of outside resources

The major drawback of large classes is that teachers are often spread too thin to give students the attention they need—particularly those who need the most. If you suspect your child is struggling in school, be it emotionally or academically, ask your teacher or principal about resources outside the classroom, such as school-based guidance counseling, private therapy, after school tutoring programs, etc.

The Takeaway

Small class sizes have a wide range of proven benefits, including improved academic performance and socio-emotional growth in children. However, large classes are still the norm in many places and, until that changes, parents can find comfort in knowing that a little proactive effort goes a long way towards improving the situation for students and teachers alike.

5 Questions to Ask in a Parent-Teacher Conference, According to a Teacher Who’s Been on the Other Side of the Table

purewow author

Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...