Is Class Size Important?

Posted by Angela Cooper on May 19, 2016
Angela Cooper

class of students raising hands 

As parents, we want to provide our children with the best education we can. By best, I’m suggesting a safe, clean environment with teachers who want to teach. We look for excellence in curriculum and how well the students perform on standardized testing. We want to prepare our children for a successful future and help them get into the best college possible.

My husband and I are both retired military officers, and we have done our fair share of school research. We always put the children’s education first. I would search for the best schools in the area of our next duty stations, and then we found a place to live in that district. My children have attended a private school in Missouri, public schools in Illinois, Arizona, and Texas, a Catholic school in Illinois and a Christian School in California.

We always considered class size in making the decision on which school to choose.

School Ranking

In today’s day and age, we have tools to help us see which public schools are doing the best. Public schools are ranked nationally by state. Different organizations use slightly different criteria for ranking, but they all use test scores as a fundamental gauge. For 2016, Education Week shows Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont taking the top three spots in that order for the best public schools. California is ranked 41st. 

Great Schools is another web site which rates schools, but the schools are ranked against other schools in that particular state. So if you find the #1 school in Nevada, how good will it be considering that Nevada ranked last nationally?  Go to Great Schools for more information on the schools in your state.

In the top three states, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont, the average class is 20 students or less. The bottom three states, Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico, average 35 students or more per class.

Research on Class Size

One of the most respected studies on class size was conducted in Tennessee in 1980 called The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project (Project STAR). Research from STAR consistently found positive academic improvement for kids whose classes were reduced to roughly 15 students. Children in these smaller classes continued to do better throughout the later grades and also did better on college entrance exams.

Project STAR allowed for the most rigorous evaluation because it randomly assigned teachers and students to either large classes with 22 to 26 students or small classes with 13 to 17 students.  This ensured that any differences in academic performance could be attributed to smaller classes.

STAR students randomly assigned to small classrooms gained the equivalent of roughly two to three months more learning in reading and math.  And five-year follow ups with the STAR students showed the improved performance continued throughout the students’ academic careers.

Class Size Reduction


Wisconsin implemented the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (Project SAGE) in 1996. The Wisconsin effort did more than just reduce the sizes of the classes.  It combined smaller classes with effective teacher development and other supportive school practices. Project SAGE effectively targeted these services to benefit low-income youth. Wisconsin public schools scored 11th nationally and received a B rating.

A diverse range of districts participated in Project SAGE, including urban areas (such as Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee), and 18 smaller districts.  The program was rolled out gradually, starting with kindergarten and 1st grade, then expanding as students progressed to serve 2nd and 3rd graders. Project SAGE reached an average of 3,700 students per year over the initial five years.

Project SAGE combined smaller early elementary classes with several other elements including teacher professional development, rigorous curriculum, and increased learning time and other social supports.  SAGE classrooms had 15 students per teacher, lowering averages by close to ten students, consistent with Tennessee’s Project STAR.  SAGE schools also used curriculum identified by teacher and administrator associations as setting ambitiously high academic standards.  

Wisconsin’s SAGE program achieved similar positive results as Project STAR had in Tennessee. In the 3rd year of the program, early elementary students in Project SAGE achieved two to three months of additional academic progress in math, reading, and English versus comparison schools.

But lowering the number of students per class has not helped every state.


In the 1990’s, California also began an initiative to reduce classes to 15 students per teacher. However, the implementation of the effort was fraught with problems. At the time California schools were so overcrowded that in order to meet the desired ratio, thousands of new teachers were hired.  Also, the state needed 18,000 new classrooms so temporary classrooms were used. With all of their efforts, state educators could not get the classes small enough while providing quality teaching and facilities which are conducive to effective learning.


As early as 2005, Nevada revised its state statute to set the class sizes for kindergarten through 2nd grade at a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 15. Educators have been developing and implementing plans to lower the student-teacher ratio since that time, but the state’s schools still rate last nationally.

So, is class size important? I believe the answer is yes, but it’s not just the size of the class that matters. Qualified teachers and up-to-date, functional classrooms are key factors as well.  Another benefit of a smaller class that doesn’t come out in research studies is the potential for an educating community to grow and develop among the students, teachers, faculty and parents. With my boys attending both large and small schools, from a parent’s perspective, my children have excelled when I am most involved. I have found that it is much easier to be involved in my boys’ classes when they have 10 to 15 kids in their classes. It seems the evidence is clear that smaller class sizes, especially in the early elementary years, is the best environment for creating a lifelong love of learning in your child.

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Topics: Christian Education