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Teachers & ES Alliance

Class sizes Matter

Article by Mary Merkenich, AEU State councilor and member of Teachers & ES Alliance.

Abridged version published in Green Left Weekly 4 May 2013.


Adam Creighton asserts, in an article he wrote (April 20th, 2013) in the Australian, that “Teachers unions in Australia and worldwide have been astonishingly successful at hoodwinking the public into thinking smaller classes matter.” As a teacher with over 30 years’ teaching experience and a member of the Australian Education Union, articles such as these trouble and irritate me.

They trouble me because I know they belong to a conviction that financial considerations are more important than human needs. They irritate me because they display ignorance about what it is really like to be a teacher in front of a class.

Classes are not homogenous groups of little robots, who all unquestioningly follow teacher instructions. Classes consist of individuals with individual needs, abilities, interests, concerns and social skills. Teachers have to manage these differences so that all have the best educational opportunities as well as a rewarding and rich social life.

There is much evidence that shows, that smaller classes are a crucial ingredient in providing the best educational opportunities for students.

In their study, Dynarski, Hyman, and Schanzenbach, (2011) conclude that attending a small class increases the rate of college attendance, with the largest positive impact on black and poor students.  Among those students with the lowest predicted probability of attending college, a small class increased the rate of college attendance by 11 percentage points.  Being in a small class also increases the probability of earning a college degree, and to shift students toward earning degrees in high-earning fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, business and economics.”

Heilig, Williams, and Jez’s study (2010) entitled, Input and student achievement: An analysis of Latina/o –serving urban elementary schools, examined input variables in three of the four largest districts (Houston, Dallas and Austin) in 419 schools that are majority Latina/o over 4 years (2005-2008). They evaluated variables such as school funding expenditures, tests scores, ethnicity, and teacher qualification, teacher-student ratio and degree obtainment to identify any impact on student achievement. They stated that the “Most powerful predictor of changes in reading and math in all models was decreasing the student teacher ratio…. Essentially, decreasing the student teacher ratio by 1 percentage point would increase the percentage of students proficient by 3% for reading and by 4% for math. “

Studies worldwide support the view that smaller class sizes improve classroom processes and academic achievement.

There are also a lot of people disputing these findings. I believe that there is a debate about class sizes only because some politicians and people with the same mind set do not want to spend the required money. I do not believe that there is any credible evidence that shows that smaller classes offer no benefits to the learner or to the teacher.

I think that one of the most powerful facts supporting the benefits of smaller classes is the outcomes achieved by Finland, which has been ranked at the top for educational results internationally for the past decade. Finland’s average class size at primary and secondary levels is 20 students per teacher. Additionally, about 40% of students in Finnish secondary schools receive some kind of special intervention. School faculties include a “special teacher” who is assigned to identify students who need extra help and then provide it.

Finland’s graduation rate for upper secondary students was 93% in 2008. On the last three Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests (given in 2003, 2006, and 2009), Finland scored either first or second out of all OECD countries for all three measures: scientific literacy, math literacy, and reading literacy.

The New Zealand Post Primary Teachers Association states, “Tackling the class size issue has never been more important than it is right now. The ‘factory method’ of education, where students spent a lot of their time with their noses in textbooks, is a thing of the past. It was better able to handle larger class sizes. We are in the era of NCEA and personalised learning, an educational approach that requires smaller groups to function well.

There are also more disruptive students in classrooms today. The problems they create are compounded in larger classes, and in turn contribute to the teacher retention (lack of) problem in our schools.”3.

Let me give you my personal experience as an educator. I currently teach a year 8 German class of 22 students. Of those 22, 1 student so far has produced no work in class or for homework. There are ‘issues’ at home, which I know nothing about but his self-esteem has clearly been affected. Another student has trouble keeping up, because he did not study German at year 7. Two other students are struggling and prefer to socialize. I have no students with a disability who might require extra care. The school I’m teaching at has students who are mostly very engaged in their education.

However, I only see these students for 3 lessons a week and there is pressure to get through the curriculum, so I don’t have enough time to devote enough individual attention to the students who I am concerned about.

The student who hasn’t produced work really needs me to sit next to him, at least for some lessons until he has learned that completing the work brings positive results for him in self-esteem as well as academic terms.

The student who did not study German at year 7 needs me to spend time with him, helping him to catch up, reassuring him that he can and showing him how to independently do so.

I need to spend time with the two who prefer to socialize so that I can identify if they are having problems, and assist them if that is the reason for their behaviour. At the same time, I have 18 other students, who I need to get to know, to answer their questions, praise their work, give them feedback or give them additional work if they require it.

I used to work at school where significant numbers of the students were not very committed to their school work and where many had learning and/or behaviour problems. Nearly every class at that school had 25 students in it. The concerns that I now have were magnified at that school.

When I began teaching in the late 70s, we had smaller student to teacher ratios for practical classes, such as woodwork and food technology. Can you imagine 25 students using saws or drills or handling hot food or using sharp knives? Clearly, the smaller the class, the easier it is for a teacher to make certain that all students are working safely.

One of the important factors in engaging students is the relationship a teacher can build with her or his students. That means that teachers need to be able to spend individual quality time with each student.

Creighton also writes, “Analysis by Inquirer estimates that lifting the average primary and secondary class size from about 23 to 27 — about where they were in 1980 — would save the NSW government more than $1bn a year,”

Small classes are expensive, but so are subsidies to car companies that lay off thousands of workers. I believe that we get value for our money from the first but certainly not from the latter. Moreover the costs to society of not engaging students are huge; welfare payments, teen pregnancy, crime, health care costs – these are all inevitable consequences when quality in education is compromised.

Supporters for Greighton’s position, such as Christopher Pynre, federal opposition education spokesperson frequently rehash the position that class sizes don’t matter. On the other hand Mr. Pynre was educated at a very wealthy private school where the average class size is 12. If small classes are not important than why do elite schools promote themselves by advertising that they have small classes? One could conclude that small classes only matter if you can afford to pay for them otherwise the ‘factory method’ is for you!

I will finish by focusing on the students. When teachers have time to give individual attention to students, in addition to having the opportunity for clarification or more help with their work, most students appreciate the recognition, the connection with the teacher and the respect they feel. Many studies have shown and many parents can attest to the fact that if a child has a positive relationship with their teacher, then that child enjoys going to school.

Teachers want positive relationships with their students but they need the time to be able to develop such relationships with every student in their classes. This discussion must also be about nurturing the dreams and aspirations of each student. These are important elements in a quality education. It is not merely a matter of dollars or numbers. Quality education is about providing the best possible learning conditions in which all young people, not just those who can afford it, thrive.


1. Dynarski, S., Hyman, J., and Schanzenbach, D. Experimental Evidence on the Effect of Childhood Investments on Postsecondary Attainment and Degree Completion

2. Vasquez Heilig, J., Williams, A. & Jez, S. (2010). Inputs and student achievement: An analysis of Latina/o-serving urban elementary schools. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 10(1), 48-58.

3. http://www.ppta.org.nz/index.php

Category: Campaigns