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Determining the Best Classroom Size for Maximum Student Performance

Desks in a classroom.

Classroom size can directly impact student performance, a point that has been well established over the years. The problem is that most public schools have limited funds and only so many classrooms and teachers available. During the recession that started in 2008, schools were coming up with ideas to save money. Some rural schools dropped down to four-day school weeks in an effort to cut transportation costs, while other schools began downsizing their teaching staff or foregoing much needed upgrades.

Some people have even suggested giving more students to top teachers and compensating them for the additional students. While this may work for experienced educators, it is not an answer that can feasibly benefit all schools.

The one thing nobody has disagreed about is how the problem is impacting students and their ability to learn. Now that the economy is in recovery, some schools are finding they have more money and with that comes the question of what is an ideal, and practical, classroom size? While teachers and schools might disagree about the answer, there have been studies to suggest an optimal number of students per classroom.

Other Factors in the Learning Process

Classroom size isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to learning. So many other variables can contribute to a student absorbing material, such as teaching methods, an individual student's learning style, family dynamics, and things like self-esteem. When it comes to smaller class sizes, teachers are able to give more one-on-one help, which increases students' knowledge and affects their overall educational growth. Children who pick up on what is being taught, often report higher self-esteem in addition to becoming better students.

Teachers with larger class sizes tend to spend more time on discipline, safety issues, and even record keeping instead of instruction. Eliminating these issues allows teachers to focus on what has the greatest impact on students: learning. While smaller class sizes benefit all students, one key factor to consider is this: when it comes to classroom size, smaller classrooms close the racial gap in terms of achievement, according to the National Education Association (NEA). This is something with which all school districts should be concerned.

What the NEA has to Say

The NEA has long been a proponent of smaller class sizes and has put forth efforts to help districts understand the benefits of them. Research has shown smaller classes increase the rate of learning for all students in the classroom. Although this is true for all students in the study, there is an even greater impact for African American students when compared to their white peers.

Interestingly, the study also shows how, over time, when students remain in smaller classes, they continue to make gains on their peers in larger classrooms. Classes that had 13-17 students faired the best, while classes with 22-25 students began to significantly fall behind. In today's classrooms, however, some districts are experiencing classroom size well beyond 25 students. Take California, for example; average class size for elementary schools is 24.9, just below the 25 mark, although that number jumps significantly for the high school grades, as is common in many states.

The Perfect Number

Studies show the smaller the class, the better the learning, but there has to be a limit. It's impractical to think schools can have classrooms with only seven or nine students; so where is the balance? School districts can't afford extra classrooms and teachers, outside of additional resources, what is the ideal number of students?

According to the NEA, a good number to target is 15, which lies in the middle of their studies based on the 13-17 students per classroom. Any number of students over this target impedes the learning process to the detriment of the students. While this number is well below what some states currently have enrolled in a given classroom, it gives proponents of school reform a number to target. While 19 students is over the threshold, it is much better than a classroom of 24, so decreasing class size is beneficial even if it doesn't hit the target mark.

Although there is no perfect answer when it comes to lowering class size, understanding where the target lies can help to better prepare school districts to what it takes to get to that magic number. Educating the public on the benefits of classroom size can positively impact any future budget cuts under consideration, enabling schools to focus on educating students to the best of their ability.

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