Size matters re school classes, scientists find

Almost everyone believes that students do better in smaller classes than in large ones. Overcrowded classes can, in fact, be detrimental to students well after they have left school. About the only ones who disagree are budget-cutting politicians and their allies who want to increase class size as a way to reduce spending on education, by over-working teachers and under-funding school construction.

Here is an example of this mindset from New York City, far from a conservative stronghold. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was quoted a few years ago (2007) in the New York Times making the following observation:

“If you’re going to spend an extra dollar, personally, I would always rather spend it on the people that deliver the service. It’s the teacher looking a child in the eye, and teachers can look lots of children in the eye. If you have to have smaller class size or better teachers, go with the better teachers every time.”

How many children can you look in the eye at once? This is where those eyes in the back of the head come into play no doubt.

The class size issue is better given a scientific consideration than a political one. So, this article is based on a March 6 report in the online edition of ScienceDaily: “Smaller School Classes Leads to Better Student Outcomes and Higher Wages.”

The Swedish Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy (IFAU) has reported that society as a whole benefits when students are educated in small classes. Based on analysis of elementary students (grades 4, 5 and 6) who were followed into adulthood, researchers found that large classes resulted in poorer grades in higher education and lower wages in adulthood, while just the opposite characteristics describe the students from smaller classes.

Past studies, mostly in the United States, did not clearly show any long-term benefits from small classes but did reveal that, in the short term, students tended to learn more. The Swedish study covered about 31,000 students from 1967, 1972, 1977, and 1982. Their grades, self esteem, and educational accomplishments were followed and, from ages 27 to 42, their incomes. It was revealed that students from smaller classes, where the number was cut by 5 students, had incomes greater than 3% higher than those from uncut classes. Not only that, but the students from the smaller classes felt better about themselves and were more motivated to go on to higher education.

One of the researchers, Björn Öckert, said: “The effects on earning power are sufficiently large for the surplus to outweigh the direct costs of having smaller classes. This means that society recoups the costs of small classes. School resources play a role not only for student achievement, which previous research has shown, but also for how things turn out later in life.”

Something for Mayor Bloomberg and other politicos to consider as class sizes in New York City and elsewhere move up from 25 to 30 or more.

Photo: muckster // CC 2.0


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.