In the area of school reform, class size reduction seems to hold all
the aces. It is popular with academics, teachers, students and parents
alike. It seems intuitive that to have fewer children in a class is
Many people, including the authors of the recent Vinson
Report on Public Education in NSW, would have us believe that research
confirms this. Thorough examination of the research on class sizes and
student achievement, however, reveals that this belief is misplaced.
First, many studies have methodological problems that make their
application in a real world context doubtful. For example, in the largest
and most frequently cited study - project
STAR in Tennessee - teachers involved in the study were arguably
motivated to ensure that the findings were in favour of smaller classes.
This incentive would not exist if small classes were implemented across
Second, many studies introduced other reforms such as curriculum
changes at the same time as class size reduction, making their separate
effects impossible to determine.
Third, even setting aside these methodological problems, the large
majority of studies have found no significant effects of class size on
student achievement. The remainder has shown small benefits, usually only
when classes have less than 20 students.
Fourth, class size effects are mediated by the competence and
effectiveness of the teacher.
In fact, the single most important influence on student achievement
(apart from intelligence) is teacher quality. What teachers do in the
classroom has more effect on how much a student learns than class size,
family background or gender. Unlike class size, this relationship has been
consistently confirmed by research both in Australia and overseas.
It makes sense. A great teacher in front of a large class is better
than a mediocre teacher in front of a smaller class. Conventional wisdom
on class size does not stand up to the same scrutiny.
The most common argument for smaller classes is that teachers can spend
more time on individual instruction. Average kindergarten to Year 2 class
size in NSW is just over 25 students. The recent Vinson Report recommends
reducing maximum class size to twenty students. This extra cost of $1150
per year per student, amounting to billions of dollars over the next few
years, would buy an extra two minutes per day of individual instruction.
Furthermore, class size research has found that teacher's aides, or
team teaching, has no effect on student achievement. This again suggests
that the ratio of staff to students is less important than the teacher's
What constitutes effective pedagogy is another issue, but there seems
to be agreement that teacher education in Australian universities is
inadequate in imparting both pedagogical and behaviour management skills
to teachers. There is too much emphasis on the theoretical over the
practical. New teachers have usually spent only a few weeks in teaching
practicum, and support for them in the extremely difficult first year in a
school is patently inadequate.
Another problem is the lack of ongoing professional development for
classroom teachers. The NSW Department of Education undervalues the need
for teachers to be aware of new developments in both curriculum and
pedagogy, and teachers have too few incentives to seek out professional
development opportunities for themselves.
Smaller classes are hugely popular with classroom teachers, and
understandably so. It seems obvious that having fewer students makes their
jobs easier. The trouble is that this does not necessarily translate into
significantly better learning outcomes.
The reality is that governments have a limited amount of money to
spend, even on imperative services such as education. Decisions have to be
made about how to spend money in the most effective ways.
When it comes to teachers, quality is far more important than quantity.
The push for class size reduction serves only to weaken the case for more
urgent and supportable investments, such as improved teacher education,
better professional development and a salary structure that rewards good