When size matters

There has been a spate of teacher strikes across the country recently and just last week the teachers in the Chicago schools, one of the largest in the country, ended their 11-day strike. Like other teachers who went on strike, they were demanding better salaries, extra resources, and better working conditions but also calling for smaller class sizes. And they won a lot of their demands.

In addition to guaranteeing all CTU members a 16% raise over the life of the five-year contract, the offer invests $35 million in reducing class sizes – up $10 million from the city’s previous offer.

On staffing, the city’s offer guarantees that every school will have a nurse and social worker by 2023. The offer includes 120 new “equity positions” for highest-need schools – such as counselors, restorative justice coordinators and librarians – and additional staffing in bilingual and special education.

Note that one thing that they did ask for and got was reduced class sizes. Class sizes have been steadily rising because the lack of adequate funding of public schools means that not enough teachers are being hired.

This has naturally prompted discussions of how much class size matters in student achievement. Academic performance is an important metric as long as it is not being measured purely by scores on standardized tests, one of the least useful measures that one can have. But even with a good measure, that should not be the only metric for evaluating the quest for smaller classes.

To me, class size matters for reasons other than achievement because it affects the quality of the personal relationships that students and teachers have. In my experience, around 12-15 students is what I consider to be the ideal class size. Go below 12 and the class tends to lack collective energy and the sense of being a community of learners. Go too much above 15 and the teacher tends to start to lose the sense of knowing each student as an individual so that you can identify their strengths and weaknesses and give them the targeted feedback they need to really learn and grow.

Bertrand Russell said that, “no man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection toward his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value.” But to have those warm feelings requires one to know students as individuals and larger classes hinder that.


  1. Marshall says

    I remember my math courses in college and I agree that 12-15 was always the most engaging. One of the other benefits is that if I skipped class because I was being lazy, it was very obvious and I would feel sheepish the next time I presented my face--you’re kind of telling the professor to their face that you don’t think their time spent teaching is worth it to you, whereas with a big class there’s no feeling of responsibility since they won’t be able to pick you out of a crowd anyway.

  2. Timothy says

    Class size and space matters. This from some recent research on education from Penn State:

    “Overcrowded classrooms—and schools—have consistently been linked to increased levels of aggression in students. Overcrowded classrooms are also associated with decreased levels of student engagement and, therefore, decreased levels of learning.

    Alternatively, classrooms with ample space are more conducive to providing appropriate learning environments for students and associated with increased student engagement and learning. Classroom space is particularly relevant with the current emphasis on 21st century learning such as ensuring students can work in teams, problem solve, and communicate effectively. Classrooms with adequate space to reconfigure seating arrangements facilitate the use of different teaching methods that are aligned to 21st century skills. Creating private study areas as well as smaller learning centers reduces visual and auditory interruptions, and is positively related to student development and achievement.”


  3. Steve Cameron says

    A listener who phoned in to the Best of the Left podcast called the tendency by the powerful to underpay essential care jobs like nurses and teachers an “empathy tax.” People who care enough to pursue careers where they help people are taken advantage of when it comes to wages and working conditions because they care too much about the people they help for those material things to be red lines that would lead them to quit. Late-stage capitalism is a cruel and cynical system.

  4. lorn says

    The Highschool I went to commonly had classes with more than 50 students in them. Most had no second instructor/assistant. A good day, according to most of the teachers, was one where there were no fights, or drug overdoses, and someone, pretty much anyone, learned something. Johnny learned the difference between ‘there and their and they’re’ … a good day. Teachers played a short game and savored any victory, no matter how small.

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