Education Memoir

Does Size Matter?

image from steve garfield @

When I taught at the Upper School at Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana in the 1990’s, I had it so good, I didn’t even know how good I had it. Anything I ever asked for, I received. If I needed a stapler, I got one. Tape dispenser? Of course. I had pencils and pens and a clock for my room. Hell, I even wrastled up a rug!

The largest class I ever taught at MPCDS had 18 students in it. Eighteen! I was able to individualize assignments for accelerated students and there was time during free periods and after school to help students who needed help. I also really got to know my students on a personal level. In fact, I am still in touch with many of them twenty years later.

The low student/teacher ratio allowed us not only to move through the material quickly, it allowed us to go deep. We had time to do creative projects: enhance the curriculum with art and music. Students had time to work on their writing and compose multiple drafts of a single essay. They worked very hard, and – with 18 students – it was obvious when they hadn’t read or prepared as discussion would simply stop. With 18 students in a classroom, by and large, everyone participated.

When I moved to New York State and started teaching at a local community college, the maximum class size for an English Composition 101 class was set at 24. Last semester, I was surprised to see 27 student names on my roster.

Now that may not seem like a big deal.

You might wonder, “What impact could an extra 3 students possibly have in the classroom climate and culture?”

Let’s just say for each student a teacher gains, that’s another paper to grade, another student who needs makeup work if he or she is absent, another e-mail to answer. If a teacher has 5 sections, adding 3 extra students per section is 15 additional students, which – in my old private school – was an actual class section! And those numbers can get overwhelming very quickly.

I find having more students makes it harder just to remember people’s names. There are more opportunities for students to “hide” in the back row and zone out. In a typical class period, not everyone speaks. I have had to change my methods to make sure that everyone is focused on my material, that they are even awake! Because my sections meet every other day, there are fewer opportunities for discussion. I don’t always have as great a grasp on who has written which paper. As students withdraw from my courses, I feel an embarrassing sense of relief. And let me be clear, this relief is not because I don’t like the students. That is not it at all. The reality is that it leaves me more space in my brain to focus on the students who remain, to help the people who get their work done and who want to be there to succeed.

In a recent article published in Education News, Sam Dillon wrote:

Over the past two years, California, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin have loosened legal restrictions on class size. And Idaho and Texas are debating whether to fit more students in classrooms.

Los Angeles has increased the average size of its ninth-grade English and math classes to 34 from 20. Eleventh and 12th-grade classes in those two subjects have risen, on average, to 43 students.

“Because many states are facing serious budget gaps, we’ll see more increases this fall,” said Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor who has studied the recession’s impact on schools.

The increases are reversing a trend toward smaller classes that stretches back decades. Since the 1980s, teachers and many other educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.

image from photosteve @

Recently, Andrew Cuomo  made some drastic cuts to New York States Education Budget that has administrators quietly wringing their hands.

And for the first time in my life, I plan to attend a Budget meeting for my local school district, set for March 14, 2011. Why? It is my understanding that in my district no one attends these meetings, and I’d like to understand the process by which these cuts will be made. What exactly will be cut?

Music and art are generally considered extras. I will try to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if saving those courses means my son’s core class sizes will need to balloon to 34 students… well, that’s a tough choice.

There are about to be drastic cuts in every public school across the country, and if you care about the future of your children’s education, I implore you to make the time to attend these Board meetings about the budget. Everyone always complains after the cuts have been made. Be part of the process and try to help the Board with their decision-making. Or at least bear witness to the process.

It really is our civic duty.

Think of it like voting. You know how people always say if you don’t vote in the Presidential elections, you have absolutely no right to complain because you opted out of the process. Well, I agree. And as the band Rush so aptly sang back in the 1980’s: “If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice.”

I am planning to go to this budget meeting to find out what we, the general public, might be able to do to prevent these cuts. I want to ask the Board how much money we might need to raise to save certain programs. Because maybe as a community, we can raise some money.

Maybe I am optimistic.

Maybe I am delusional.

Hell, I’ve been called worse.

But I do believe that I live in the kind of school district where parents are willing to help.

And I can be the girl who asks.

In the past, I’ve found chocolate and wine can get people to do almost anything.

(But seriously, anyone wanna come with? I’m a little nervous… more about getting lost on the way to the meeting than anything else.)

Do you think class size matters when it comes to education?

46 thoughts on “Does Size Matter?

  1. God yes. And those ‘reasearchers’ who say smaller isn’t better are using the same poorly deisgned evidence that requires teaching to the test. Good fo you, making your voice heard!

    1. WoPro:

      I have read those reports. I have taught in both situations, and I know what I have personally experienced. It kind of makes me want to go back to get a PhD and retest these theories myself with better designed methods.

      But then I just smack myself really hard. 😉

  2. Renee–you’re totally right about class size. I may not be a teacher, but I am a college student. I remember my classes ballooning from the time I was in middle school to high school (public school)…and for the last 4 years, again ballooning…4 years I’ve been paying for my education (also public). You teach at a community college, so you understand.

    At the 1st college I attended in Pennsylvania, the class sizes were decent–20 seats in a class except for lecture halls like Biology and Chemistry–where we received individual attention in the lab portions. Then I transferred to community college where the classes were slightly larger, but I always managed to forge relationships with my professors. Now, at a large public college here in NYC, my class sizes are so huge, that I’ve only forged one relationship with one my teacher in the 3 semesters I’ve been here

    This semester, my introductory speech class, a freshman level class I saved for my senior year has 34 students. I’ve managed to standout to my teacher as an exceptional writer and public speaker, but I feel awful for the other students in my class who are not able to get as much attention from her as they may need. I occassionally get annoyed with her because she seems like such a scatter-brain, but she teaches 4 classes at two different schools. You’ve made me realize the impact of that. If she has just 30 students in her other 3 classes, she has over 120 students to worry about for the entire semester, which is insane.

    1. Hi Erica:

      I wonder when I head back in the fall if the numbers will be even higher. Maybe up to 28 or 30.

      Maybe I’m not supposed to be thinking about forging personal relationships with my students at this level. Maybe that is my fatal flaw. But it is just becomes more and more difficult to do everything I want to do as my classes get bigger.

      Hopefully my former students don’t consider me to be scatterbrained, but it’s possible. It’s definitely possible.

  3. Yes. Size matters. The smaller the class size, the better the learning experience. I was fortunate enough to attend a private school growing up and while I was envious of my friends who went to public schools, [we had no prom, big football games, etc], looking back, I would not trade the experience for the world. It was a nurturing environment free of bullying [for the most part], we got to know our teachers VERY well, had to wear a uniform daily, [no peer pressure to wear the latest trend], and took our studies seriously. My elementary school aged boys are in public school now, and I find the smallest things irking me on a daily basis. Politics have gotten in the way of education and it is wrong. I am doing everything I can now to get them into private school as soon as we can swing it. Good luck at the board meeting. I would go if I lived in your area…[you can rally the parents].

    1. I have to admit, I’m pretty terrified of going to this meeting. I’ve already gotten myself into some hot water with my bloggie-blog. We joke that I have made the most hated parent list in the district, but I believe there really might be one and if there is, I’m quite sure my name is on it. And probably pretty near the top.

      Honestly, my plan is to be quiet. I don’t know the protocol or anything. I just want to hear what is said. There will be another budget meeting later in the month where – maybe – if I felt I had something to say, maybe I just might say something. Maybe.

  4. Amen that! You summed it up so well! The day to day effects that a larger classroom has on teaching – that is the trenches. It’s where the line is drawn. And the line points to a bleak future. The choices being made now will undoubtedly by long term and far reaching.

  5. My teaching experiences always involved large classes, except when I was teaching reading. I did my student teaching in 6th grade in Greece, NY, in a portable classroom with 36 students! I had the use of a student desk – in the hall! The only saving grace was that there were more girls than boys,so it was generally peaceful. In those days, the suburbs in Greece were good, solid middle class, so discipline was usually not a major issue. One other detail no one talks about much is the lack of space. If you have large classes, there is no physical room to set up work stations or creative centers.

    1. Yes, my last classroom was a long rectangle (think bowling alley) – and it featured a large square pole just off-center. Talk about obscured view! It made it near impossible to do the kinds of activities that I like to do. I tried, but it wasn’t always easy.

      By the way, in each section, I nearly always lose 7-8 students. I think that is why the college is enrolling more students at the beginning because they know will not make it through the semester.

  6. I think it really matters. The size matter not just in term of continous pressure but also interms of quality of work produced.

      1. Touché. Why hasn’t anyone pointed that out? Gates is a totally non-traditional learner, to say the least! An independent learner. How many of our children could be impacted by the policies that he is trying to enact vis a vis his “Leap of Faith” Movement?

        I’m the first person to say what he have ain’t workin’ but adding more students into the mix is probably not going to fix things.

  7. Yes, it matters. I have taught in four different private schools (in three countries) in my 16 year teaching career. It matters. The best class sizes, in my opinion, are between 14-18. At my current school, they cap class size at 25. This is way more manageable than 40 (which I’ve never had), but even 22 is substantially better than 25.

    I don’t know how teachers who have 30+ do it. Everyone suffers. And it makes the low retention rate of new teachers more than understandable.

    You go, the Erin Brokovitch for education. We need advocates like you.


    1. I’m going to comment on my comment. I call it Friday Brain.

      With respect to what Steve says below:

      There’s truth to the fact that the devastating economy is a factor, but I honestly think that governments are wrong to see education as an expenditure when it is an investment.

      Deborah Yedlin, a Calgary business commentator (who’s actually very conservative) made this point beautifully with regard to teacher’s pay. You could easily substitute “class size” in her interview with CBC radio. Here’s the link if you’re interested:

  8. No one can argue that small classes are better than larger classes, but that’s besides the point. The Nation and the States are broke. There simply is no more money to be had.

    The waste in the school systems is enormous. I was giving a lecture at Gates-Chili H.S, recently and they have a huge aquarium structure–not just a tank–a building for FISH!—in the hall. Is that an effective use of limited tax dollars? I spoke at Webster H.S. last month and they had a high tech white board system in the room that had to cost ten thousand dollars and was little used.

    I see large school buses running around the neighborhood with maybe six kids as a full load. If you want more teachers and smaller classes (good things), start looking at things you don’t need or need less of. When public institutions start thinking and acting like private ones things will get better. Of course that is never going to happen.

    By the way, years back I gave a lecture at the University of Rochester. The class was at least 200 students and I thought that was a pretty poor return on a $40,000. per year college bill.

    1. I am all for cutting waste…but not cutting classes like art and music. Physical Education has gone down the tubes as well….and the govt complains that our kids don’t get enough exerercise. Here in Ithaca, they re-districted our neighborhood for the elementary schools in order to re-distribute and raise test scores for the lowest producing elementary school in the district. There was a big uproar in our neighborhood [we came in two years after the blow-up as renters and are leaving this summer, so we are not all that invested]. They allow open enrollment here, so that you may elect to send your child to the originally districted elementary school, but the catch is that you have to provide transport for your child and they will not be bused. The funny thing is that the district pays for school buses to travel a longer distance to bus the kids from our hood all the way downtown, but won’t drive them 2 miles down the street to the original home school.

    2. And this is why I am going to the meeting. To listen to what they are going to propose we cut. Because I think there are waaaaaay too many folks at the top (read: people in Albany) telling everyone else what to do when a lot more could be done at the classroom level.

      And as far as busing goes, don’t get me started. There are kids who could walk to school because they live well within walking distance, but their parents don’t make them walk. They either drive their kids themselves or have them take the bus. (Usually the former.) Poppycock, I say. I hate seeing those empty buses, too — especially gas prices being what they are.

      Right now I’m trying really hard to understand why my son has to learn about how to do laundry as part of his 6th grade curriculum. Seems like most kids learn that when they go into the world and have to do it for real. Ruin that first favorite shirt and you learn to read tags.

  9. Yes, it definitely matters. My wife is about finished with her Master’s program, and aims to start teaching English at the community college level, here in California. There’s no doubt in my mind she’ll be asking herself the same questions.

    Thanks for the insightful post. I am a newbie to this blog, and I find it especially enriching. Keep it up!

  10. I continued to go to schools which provided smaller and smaller class sizes. Actually the largest classes I ever had were in Graduate School where my MBA classes were 50 or so people. But by the time you’re at that level, people have decided that they want to be there and participation still ranks very high in the grading process. The way the classes were set up, with stadium seating, the professors could easily see each of the students and could usually tell who was playing games on their laptop.

    But for both K-12 and undergrad, I really wanted the personal attention that a small class afforded. I wanted the teachers to know my name and to understand where I stood academically. In larger classes, I could easily drift off, disengage, or even read my novel in class without the teacher ever noticing.

    1. Cole:

      If you were reading something in class, your teachers probably were just happy that you were quiet, engaged or not.

      If I had caught you reading – say Ordinary People when you were supposed to be reading East of Eden, I would have kicked your literary booty! 😉

  11. Dear Professor Jacobson,

    During high school, I was in a one classroom setting with eleven other students, and I loved it. I completely agree with you about the “large square pole just off-center.” It was a unique part of the classroom. I had more to write, but other people already wrote it. I thought you had a PhD.

    Your grammar hammer,
    Nate Faulknor

  12. I think a lot of things matter when it comes to education, which are currently being cut this and that way by governments trying to “save” in order to keep the private sector afloat. As usual, the people are asked to pay (both financially and in terms of consequences) for the mistakes of a delusional money-greedy minority. It sounds simplistic said that way, but it is the jist of what really happened with the “crisis”.

    1. I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting from this document (created in 1999) which came from Anne’s link above. Apparently people don’t believe these facts are true anymore. Thank you for the link, Anne.


      * Reduced class size provides students with many benefits: greater opportunities for participation, greater individual attention, and improved instruction. Conflicting interpretations and the implications for policy decisions at the local, state, and national levels make research on class size and teacher workload controversial. Yet, a current analysis of long-term studies and recent grassroots research reveals that class size does indeed have a major impact on student achievement, behavior, and attention (see Bracey, “Research”).

      * Student achievement increases significantly in classes of fewer than 20. Smaller classes, complemented by diverse teaching methods, create better student performance, more positive attitudes, and fewer discipline problems. Students and parents have the right to expect classrooms with these characteristics.


      Teaching workload includes, but is often not limited to, the amount of time spent working, the number of classes taught, and the number of students in each class. Additionally, English teachers spend only about three-quarters of their average work week at school (see Dusel). This average does not reflect the amount of time necessary to adequately address the needs of students. Teachers of English language arts consistently find themselves working outside of school, thus lengthening their work week. This means that teachers of English, on average, work longer hours than their colleagues in other disciplines. A teacher with 125 students who spends only 20 minutes per paper must have at least 2,500 minutes, or a total of nearly 42 hours, to respond to all the students’ papers. Therefore, responding to one paper per week for each of their 125 students requires English teachers to work over 80 hours a week. This response and evaluation time must also be balanced with time for in-class instruction, planning and preparation, administrative paperwork and functions, as well as school supervisory and advisory responsibilities. No other nation requires teachers to work a greater number of hours a day and year than the United States. Compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations, U.S. teachers lack adequate time for class preparation and collaborative work with their colleagues.

  13. I caught something on news radio this morning about how the US is ‘winning’ the education race to overcome larger class sizes by splitting the higher dropout rate schools into smaller ‘academies’. The higher risk kids are benefiting from the extra attention and support [duh!]. I am not sure where this is happening or how, but it does seem like a good idea. I wish it was a simple as that. There are plenty of good people who want to teach. Again, politics getting in the way of education.

    Why in earth is your son’s class learning how to do laundry??

    1. It’s part of the “Home and Careers” curriculum. Remember when we did Home Ec., back in the day? Same kind of thing. Except now they have tests. Just by the by, I have to dish out about $7 for fabric so he can make a pillow with a sewing machine. Not to be snide, but what kids make their own clothes? The kids that do turn out to be Michael Kors and I’m pretty sure they don’t know how to teach that in school. 😉

  14. That can up there. How do you fillet a sardine? That’s like fly breasts or thighs.

    I can explain the budget thing very easily. Just for the sake of numbers, it costs a state $10 to run the state’s total operations and they have only $5 (See I did not misplace only). So what else can they do? Do you know how they cheated to determine class size in Miami? They counted counselors that have no students and when you divide 5 counselors plus teachers into the number of students the classes look smaller.

    The advantages of smaller class size are so obvious that I decided anything I might say would be redundant.

  15. I am grateful to know that there are teachers like you! Your dedication and genuine concern is admirable. I wish you good luck at your meeting and have fun trying to use “right speech” during the proceedings!

  16. Size does matter. When you want to get to each student and trace everyone’s improvement and do more for each individual student, even one or two extra students will increase your work load drastically. We have more than 35 students in grade nine. I find it takes up much of my time but I can’t cut down on the time I spend for each child. Nice to hear that there are such sincere teachers like you out there.

    1. Bindu John:

      I have taught English in classes as large as 30 students and had 5 sections with 3 different preparations. That was brutal. That was when I felt the most torn.

      Try collecting 150 8-10 page essays. You walk in the next day and students ask, “Did you grade our essays yet?” They have no idea!

      I now make shorter assignments and set a timer for 20 minutes. If I can’t get through an essay in 20 minutes, I stop. I just draw a line on the paper. If I am struggling that hard, the paper is a mess.

      Also, if I catch more than 3 misspelled words (and I don’t mean homonyms, I mean out and out evidence they did not use a spell check program), I stop at that 3rd misspelled word and hand the paper back. It makes a pretty big impact.

      I need them to care as much as I do. And I need to figure out who cares as quickly as possible.

  17. The sense of connection between teacher and pupil that you mention is sometimes undervalued in the discussion of class size. Knowing the students better and having them know me better creates a relationship that increases performance on both sides: I don’t want to fail them, and they don’t want to fail me. That type of scenario can be more easily achieved in a smaller class.

    Good luck at the meeting, Renee. The fact that you’re involved and advocating is as important as the results.

  18. Class size is a HUGE factor. I’m on the other side of the classroom now (albeit as a substitute for the moment), and having seen both sides I agree completely! I will never forget having classes with 10 students or under – one in high school and one during teacher’s college. A former teacher of mine currently has 34 students in a grade 12 drama class this year – 34!

    I think there’s a lot to be said for smaller classes. You get to know your students better, you have better discussions with participation from everyone, etc.

    1. Dear MST:

      I hope you are subbing in a school with small classes. I hope the kids are kind and don’t do the ole name switch-a-roo. I hope that you are able to stop being a sub and find yourself in own classroom in your own subject matter, if that is – in fact – what you want to do. I hope the teachers appreciate what you are doing for them, even if the kids don’t.

      It is nice to meet you.

      I must confess, wasn’t always very nice to my subs. (Except for Mrs. Mancini. I was always nice to Mrs. Mancini, but that’s because she was so dang cool.) Perhaps, through you, I can make penance? 😉

      1. I’m a substitute in a rather large and diverse board so my class sizes for the moment are incredibly varied – but tend to be 20+ (usually hovering around 25 minimum). I look forward to the day I have my own classroom too – but I have to pay my dues first and it may take a few years to get in as full time permanent, but it’ll come.

        And I’ve had a few of the old name switches – but their friends always end up calling them by their actual names so I figure it out pretty quickly lol! I’ve started to perfect my sub technique though so I don’t get too many kids really trying to mess with me. Helps that I catch them off guard since I’m not much older than they are, I talk to them like adults (I’ve had high school kids work for me the past few years in my summer job) and I’m sarcastic as all get out. Seems to be the way to communicate with high school aged kids. 😀

  19. Class size makes a huge difference! Even having an extra adult in the class makes abig difference. In New Zealand I taught classes of 27-30 7-8 year olds with no other adult, now I am teaching in the UK and there is almost always a teacher aide with me. Which means means that there is always another pair of hands, eyes and ears to get around all the children plus when accidents happen or anything else one of us can look after the rest of the children while the other deals with the incident. However we still run out of space because there are so many of us in it.
    Small classes are a dream that I have only had a few very brief experiences with while teaching, one when a stomach bug took out half the class and again while subbing in a small country school.It really bugs me when I can’t get a chance to check in with each child in my class on a daily bases and for a while was scheduling it in just to make sure I got to talk one on one with each child every week and not miss any one out.

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