The Class-size debate – it matters to teachers

Class size matters to teachers

Class size is a perennial question in education. What is the ideal size for a school class? Teachers would like smaller classes, to improve learning. There is evidence of a small positive effect size due to reducing class size from meta-analysis published in John Hattie’s Visible Learning. But it makes sense, teachers argue – fewer children in the class means more opportunities for one-to-one interactions with the teacher. It makes for easier crowd control, less noise and less stress for teachers and pupils. And in these days of National Standards, it makes the assessment load more realistic.

Educational Research is difficult

I’d just like to point out that educational research is difficult. One of my favourite readings on educational research is an opinion piece by David Berliner, Educational Research: The hardest science of all,  where he explains the challenge of educational research. It was written in response to a call by the US Government for evidence-based practices in education. Berliner reminds us of how many different factors contribute to learning. And measuring learning is itself an inexact science. At one point he asks: “It may be stretching a little, but imagine that Newton’s third law worked well in both the northern and southern hemispheres—except of course in Italy or New Zealand—and that the explanatory basis for that law was different in the two hemispheres. Such complexity would drive a physicist crazy, but it is a part of the day-to-day world of the educational researcher.”

Ask the teachers

So with this in mind, I decided to ask the experts. I asked NZ primary school teachers who are just gearing up for the 2017 school year. These teachers were invited via a Facebook group to participate in a very short poll using a Google Form. There were just eight questions – the year level they teach, the minimum, maximum and ideal size for a class at that level, how many children they are expecting in their class this year and how long they have been teaching. The actual wording for the question about ideal class size was: “In your opinion what is the ideal class size that will lead to good learning outcomes for the year level given above?” There were also two open-ended questions about how they had chosen their numbers, and what factors they think contribute to the decision on class-size.

Every time I do something like this, I underestimate how long the analysis will take. There were only eight questions, thought I. How hard can that be…. sigh. But in the interests of reporting back to the teachers as quickly as possible, I will summarise the numeric data, and deal with all the words later.

Early results

There were about 200 useable responses. There was a wide range of experience within the teachers. A third of the teachers had been teaching for five years or shorter, and 20% had been teaching for more than twenty years. There was no correlation between the perceived ideal class size and the experience of the teacher.

The graph below displays the results, comparing the ideal class-size for the different year levels. Each dot represents the response of one teacher. It is clear that the teachers believe the younger classes require smaller classes. The median value for the ideal class size for a New Entrant, Year 1 and/or Year 2 class is 16. The median value for the ideal class size for Year 3/4 is 20, for Year 5/6 is 22 and for year 7/8 is 24. The ideal class size increases as the year level goes up. It is interesting that even numbers are more popular than odd numbers. In the comments, teachers point out that 24 is a very good number for splitting children into equal-sized groups.

These dotplot/boxplots from iNZight show each of the responses, and the summary values.

These dotplot/boxplots from iNZight show each of the responses, and the summary values.

It is interesting to compare the maximum class size the teachers felt would lead to good learning outcomes. I also asked what class size they will be teaching this year.  The table below gives the median response for the ideal class size, maximum acceptable, and current class size. It is notable that the current class sizes are all at least two students more than the maximum acceptable values, and between six and eight students more than the ideal value.

Median response
Year Level Number of respondents Ideal class size Maximum acceptable Current
New Entrant Year 1/2 56 16 20 22
Year 3/4 40 20 24.5 27.5
Year 5/6 53 22 25 30
Year 7/8 46 24 27 30

Financial considerations

It appears that most teachers will be teaching classes that are considerably larger than desired. This looks like a problem. But it is also important to get the financial context. I asked myself how much money would it take to reduce all primary school classes by four pupils (moving below the maximum, but more than the ideal)? Using figures from the Ministry of Education website, and assuming the current figures from the survey are indicative of class sizes throughout New Zealand, we would need about 3500 more classes. That is 3500 more rooms that would need to be provided, and 3500 more teachers to employ. It is an 18% increase in the number of classes. The increase in salaries alone would be over one hundred million dollars per year. This is not a trivial amount of money. It would certainly help with unemployment, but taxes would need to increase, or money would need to come from elsewhere.

Is this the best way to use the money? Should all classes be reduced or just some? How would we decide? How would it be implemented? If you decrease class sizes suddenly you create a shortage of teachers, and have to fill positions with untrained teachers, which has been shown to decrease the quality of education. Is the improvement worth the money?

My sympathies really are with classroom teachers. (If I were in charge, National Standards would be gone by lunchtime.) I know what a difference a few students in a class makes to all sorts of things. At the same time, this is not a simple problem, and the solution is far from simple. Discussion is good, and informed discussion is even better. Please feel free to comment below. (I will summarise the open-ended responses from the survey in a later post.)