Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Dear reader: Thank you for visiting my blog, Public School Notes.  I also have a newsletter about Cambridge School Committee policy decisions. You can subscribe by going to my School Committee website:

Emily Dexter
First-Term Cambridge School Committee Member

Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

Honestly, are we still debating this issue? How many parents, if offered a choice between a 1st grade class with 18 children and one with 22 would choose the one with 22?  Or if offered a class with 22 students with only one teacher and 22 students with two teachers would prefer the classroom with only one teacher? How many middle or high school teachers would prefer to teach an English class with 24 students vs. 18? How many expensive private schools advertise that their classrooms have 24 students and only one teacher? Those that do, don’t stay in business long.

And yet, whenever I mention reducing class sizes or hiring more teachers to reduce teacher:student ratios in public schools, someone will inevitably protest that the research on class size isn’t conclusive (true of almost all research), or it’s “teacher quality” that counts—quality, not quantity, as if I want to pull people off the street to teach in our schools. screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-6-21-28-pm

At a state and national level, the question makes some sense: large-scale class size reduction is expensive, and it can be, in some regions, hard to find lots of good teachers in a short amount of time. (Which is not to say that large-scale class size reduction can’t and isn’t being done.  It can and is.) But in a small district like Cambridge, where we receive more than 1,000 teacher applications a year, and where, for example, decreasing 1st and 2nd grade class sizes to 18 students would increase the CPS budget by less than 1%, it can’t just be money and concern about teacher availability that prompts class size resistance and denial. It has to be something else.

I think it’s a conceptual problem: 1) difficulty viewing teachers as skilled professionals, in part because most public school teachers are women; 2) difficulty viewing children and young people from low-income and poor families as complex individuals with unique needs and personalities; and 3) a holdover industrial era attitude that “production costs” will increase if we assign fewer “students per teacher.”

This is the opposite of the thinking shown in the private schools that cater to affluent parents, who pay a lot of money to guarantee that their children are treated as valued individuals.  What these schools offer are carefully crafted learning environments in which rich, high quality teacher-student interactions are the norm, not the exception.  Students get lots of individual and small group attention every day, even if that attention sometimes means the teacher just observing the students working on their own. In fact, small class size is often the most important feature that private schools advertise.  The classroom, not the school district, is viewed as the site of learning.  High-quality teacher-student relationships are viewed as the medium of learning, not a nice-to-have  by-product.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-2-15-07-pmIn public education, unfortunately, it’s different.  Imagine a top flight law office where the lawyers (mostly men) say they have too much work. Do the bosses bring in consultants to provide professional development so the lawyers can learn to work faster? Do they tell the lawyers, “If you were skilled lawyers, you would be able to handle all these cases?” Or do they presume the lawyers are competent and so they hire more lawyers and paralegals to help with the workload?  Teachers, though, are not treated like professionals. They are unavoidable service delivery units, the fewer the better. Who wants to bring in even more empowered professional women when the goal is to reduce the role of teachers in schools? Easier to build a better gym.  

Does class size matter? Ask the professionals. Ask the students.  And ask the parents who pay top dollar to send their kids to private schools.


3 thoughts on “Do Class Size and Student:Teacher Ratios Matter?

  1. Thanks for this, Emily. As a public school teacher, I absolutely agree that there is a strong undercurrent of sexism in the way teachers are perceived and treated. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the importance of good teaching, but in a thousand different ways our society shows that we’re really considered glorified babysitters (and not particularly good ones). Julie


  2. Emily,

    Thank you for posting this. As is often the case, you said what I was thinking, but more concisely and persuasively! So many public sector managers live in fear of anything that might “increase headcount,” even when in this case it is so clearly associated with the improved outcomes that we all seek.

    I appreciate your consistent focus on class sizes and other fundamentals, particularly in the recent budget discussion.





All comments welcome and appreciated.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s