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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a recent speech to students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that in his ideal world, he’d get rid of half of his city’s teachers and double the salaries of those remaining. This statement, together with a weak economy and teacher layoffs, has led to renewed interest in the question of class size — and whether larger classes inevitably mean that students learn less than they otherwise would.

CNN’s Christine Romans, host of the weekly “Your Bottom Line” show, interviewed Justin Snider of The Hechinger Report about class size in a segment that aired on December 10th. Opposite Snider was Leonie Haimson, founder and executive director of Class Size Matters. Last year, in a piece titled “Small classes are a luxury we can no longer afford,” Snider explained why attempts to reduce class sizes in California and Florida have yielded so few measurable benefits. Haimson wrote a rebuttal called “7 Class size myths — and the truth.”

Here’s an excerpt from their CNN debate on December 10th:

A transcript of their conversation follows:

CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: Just how important is class size?

Leonie Haimson is the founder and executive director of Class Size Matters; and Justin Snider, contributing editor of the Hechinger Report — is that how — am I saying it right?

JUSTIN SNIDER, ADVISING DEAN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: The Hechinger

ROMANS: Hechinger Report. He’s also an advising dean at Columbia University.

So we just saw a classroom with one student. This is an extreme example of undercrowding, quite frankly. This is — this is rare. But my colleague, Carol Costello, recently visited a New York high school, right there, that was built for 1,400 students and has 3,900 students.

Leonie, they’re — they’re putting kids in the attic, in the basement. That’s what you’re seeing in the big cities. When you get away from the rural schools, that’s what you’re seeing.

Do those big class sizes hurt education?

LEONIE HAIMSON, FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CLASS SIZE MATTERS: They absolutely hurt the kids in those schools. Even the best schools, for example, the one that you talked about yesterday, only 37 percent of its high school graduates are considered college ready when they graduate, and that means they have to take remedial courses and often don’t get through college because they’re not accumulating credits along the way.

For younger kids, the costs are even much more damaging, and economists, such as Alan Krueger, who is the head of the Council for Economic Advisors, has estimated that the economic benefits of class size reduction are worth twice the costs.

ROMANS: Justin, I want to bring you in, because a lot of states — most states, actually, have some policy or another on the books to try to limit or have guidelines for class size. I mean, you look at our map here, you can see it is almost every state has some kind of a class size limit.

Most parents don’t want too many kids in a class, but it’s hard to say we are going to put that limit at 29 kids because that’s the best for our school. That’s what you think?

SNIDER: Right. The problem with class size reduction talks is people think there’s a magic number.

In California in 1996, they had a surplus of money and they didn’t know how to spend it and they basically picked the number 20 out of thin air and they said 20 is the maximum we can have in kindergarten, first, second and third grade. But there’s no research to back that up. The research —

ROMANS: Did it help?

SNIDER: No. The studies show that actually this is a $20 billion investment, when we had the money, that didn’t lead to improved achievement.

HAIMSON: I disagree with that, by the way.

ROMANS: But isn’t it — but isn’t it common sense, though, if you have a teacher and two aides or other people — other adults in the classroom, that the fewer kids they have, the more that teacher can attend to that child?

SNIDER: That’s definitely true. And what you look at over time, you can see in the United States that we have been increasing the number of people [adults] in the classroom in the last 30 years. And so, therefore, the student to teacher ratio has dropped. And we have in the United States one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in the world.

ROMANS: And that’s counting in professionals and other people —

SNIDER: Yes.

ROMANS: — in the classrooms.

HAIMSON: Right. When you look at class size, our class sizes are somewhere in the middle or the top of the other industrialized countries.

ROMANS: China, Korea, not necessarily Japan, but some of these other places that are really eating our lunch on some of the — the big international tests and rankings, they have humongous classes, very big classes.

HAIMSON: You know that the vast majority of Korean students go to after school tutoring programs and the average family spends 40 percent of their disposable income on private tutoring because they know that the class sizes are too large there.

China, over and over, the experts on the Chinese educational system say their system is undermining the kind of critical thinking and creativity that they need for their country to move forward. And they want to emulate us more which is why they’re sending some of their kids here.

ROMANS: Justin, let me let you have the last word then on class size and the whole debate, because it is a very big debate.

SNIDER: Right. Well, I think that evidence would show that class size matters but only at the extremes. And when we’re talking in the policy world, what happens is we have reductions from 28 to 26 — or from 32 to 30. And that’s where there is actually no research to say that that’s going to do anything.

HAIMSON: That’s not true.

ROMANS: All right. Leonie Haimson —

HAIMSON: That’s not true.

ROMANS: — Class Size Matters founder and Justin Snider, thank you both. You will never be able to agree on this.

HAIMSON: There’s plenty of research that shows that every single kid you reduce the class size by, there’s more learning for the rest of the kids. Plenty of research for that shows that.

ROMANS: All right. We’ll have to leave it there. Thank you both.

SNIDER: Thank you.

ROMANS: Come back again soon.

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. In the recent past increasing classroom size did not help because you also have now included many children who are in need of constant attention and one on one reinforcement (this does not even address behavior issues). With NCLB we have had inclusion classes become the norm. I cannot tell you the last time I saw a school without all classes being inclusive. While this is all good and fine in theory, other teachers coming in and out of a classroom 2-5 times a day to gather up anywhere from 1 to 7 children at a time, is disruptive at best, detrimental to instruction at worst. Mind you many of these children return at separate times and these are more interruptions. And now, teachers have lost a lot of instructional time to unnecessary testing. (Testing does not make or show accountability.) When any teacher has constant interruptions to the learning/teaching process it is not going to matter if there are 15 or 25 or 35 students in the class because the student’s focus is being broken by interruptions, by other students, by bathroom breaks, and other various events during a day. They will only absorb so much. The rest is lost on them. I agree with inclusion being good for the students. There just has to be a better way to do it that is best for all the students.

  2. I have been working with special education students in both self-contained and REI (Regular Education Initiative) classes for the past two years. During these two years, I have witnessed something rather bothersome in the REI classes. Although these classes follow the 30% limit of students with IEPs (Individualized Education Program) in general education classes, these classes are typically larger so that they can legally hold more students with IEPs. The 30% limit of students with IEPs in general education classes means that in a class of 20 students, up to 6 of them can have IEPs and require various accommodations or modifications. In a class of 30 students, up to 9 of them can have IEPs. How is having that many students with IEPs in such a large class beneficial for any of the students? The goal is for students to be successful and meet the state or national standards set for their grade level (or the individual goals set by their IEPs). Even with an instructional aide, it can be incredibly difficult for teachers to not only manage the accommodations and modifications for the students with IEPs, but also to make sure that every student gets the individual attention s/he needs to be successful in a class so large. Research conducted by Alluhusen et al. (2004), “larger classrooms tend to be more structured and teacher-directed and smaller classrooms more socially interactive and supportive seems to suggest benefits for smaller classrooms”. This study demonstrates the benefits of smaller classrooms for all students, including, but not limited to students with IEPs. I feel that for all students to be successful, it is essential to take class size into consideration when placing students with IEPs. Students, both with an IEP and without an IEP, deserve to be in a class that is small enough for them to get attention that they need to be successful.

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