The class-size debate

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed that students learn better in larger classes and President Trump seconded her words, their remarks renewed the debate about the issue (“Class Sizes Will Be the Biggest Ever’ Boasts President Trump,” National Education Policy Center, Apr. 1).

The irony, of course, is that DeVos sent her two sons to Grand Rapids Christian High School, which has an average class size of 24, and Trump’s son is enrolled in St. Andrews, which has a median class size of 15.  Moreover, most politicians’ children have attended schools with equally small class sizes.

I don’t doubt that it’s possible to get a solid education in large classes.  For example, Catholic schools are known for that.  But they are outliers.  Most young people learn more effectively when they are more than just a number to their teachers.  That’s particularly the case with students from chaotic backgrounds who have never experienced a close relationship with an adult before.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I rarely had a class with fewer than 33 students.  Not only was it impossible to spend more than a minute or two grading their essays, but it was hard to get to know them individually.  That’s why I question the assertion that larger classes mean better learning.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)




2 Replies to “The class-size debate”

  1. Hard or impossible to see how a larger class size could improve learning outcomes.

    I thought the argument re class size starts with the correct premise that smaller is better and focuses on the trade off between improving academic outcomes/reducing-teacher-stress and cost — in other words, small is always better in terms of academic outcomes/teacher-stress-reduction but it’s hard/impossible to quantify how much improvement will result from spending $X on reducing class size in order to obtain Y amount of improvement in academic outcomes/reducing-teacher-stress.

    Common sense suggests that the incremental benefit flowing from reducing class size will be less in classes where the students are relatively well-behaved, relatively motivated, and at roughly the same achievement level. Conversely, the incremental benefit flowing from reducing class size will be greater in classes where the students are relatively misbehaving, relatively unmotivated, and at wildly differing achievement levels.

    And, of course, there is no easy way to accurately measure the amount of teacher-stress-reduction flowing from reducing class size.

    In my opinion, school systems view reducing-class-size as a low priority because: 1) it’s relatively expensive (reducing class size from 30 to 27 would increase teacher salary cost by 10%); 2) in some buildings it will be physically impossible (no empty classrooms); and 3) no interest group is pushing hard for increased spending to achieve class-size reduction (unlike increased spending to increase teacher salaries or even to start the school day later).


  2. Labor Lawyer: The strike by teachers in Los Angeles made reduction of class size one of the priorities. So the Los Angeles Unified School District agree to reduce by ONE the number of students in a teacher’s class. That is ridiculous, particularly in English classes where grading of student essays takes so much time.


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