Beyond Teacher Pay: Class size matters

[Image Source: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr]

Last April, the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB1010xx and other revenue measures, which restored $480 million dollars of education funding.  The majority of  the new revenue is being used to fund a long-awaited pay raise for teachers.  HB1010xx also increased funding for school operations by $50 million, which is far less than the $200 million teachers demanded, and makes up less than one-third of the amount that has been cut from schools since 2008.  Now, as students across the state settle into the 2018-2019 school year, public school administrators must again struggle with how to allocate insufficient resources.

One commonly cited challenge that educators and students talked about during the walkout was growing classroom sizes, and that concern is well founded. One of the most consistent findings in education research is that class size impacts student outcomes.  It is also a factor that state legislatures can directly control through legislative action.  Funding class size limits would build on the progress made last spring, and likely improve education outcomes in Oklahoma.  

Oklahoma successfully reduced class sizes in 1990 but has since backtracked on that progress

Oklahoma’s last major education funding increase came in 1990 when the legislature passed HB 1017, the Education Reform Act of 1990, a landmark reform package brought about by a teacher strike.  In addition to generating more funding for public schools and initiating other changes, HB1017 required class sizes no larger than 20 students per teacher in grades 1 through 5, and a limit of 140 students a day for middle and secondary teachers.  In the initial years following HB1017, teachers saw a significant drop in classroom size. However, that progress did not last.  By 2002, common education funds were $158 million below projections, and by December 1st of that year 189 of the 541 school districts in the state had been exempted from the class-size mandates.  Today, all school districts in Oklahoma have been exempted from HB1017 class size limits, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education.  This means that class sizes have likely grown.

Small class sizes are most beneficial in the early grades

Research makes clear why Oklahoma should renew its efforts to reduce classroom sizes.  Smaller class sizes are particularly beneficial for students in kindergarten through third grade. In a prominent study, researchers randomly assigned kindergartners to classrooms varying in class size from 13-15 students to 22-28 students.  By third grade, those students in the smaller classes showed achievement gains equivalent to about three months of schooling compared to those in the larger classes.  Significantly, these gains lasted throughout their schooling. Students in the smaller classes were “more likely to graduate in four years, go to college and more likely to get a degree in a STEM field.”  Based on this and other well-designed studies, researchers have concluded that a class size of no more than 18 students create the greatest benefits for kids.  For students who enter kindergarten behind their peers, smaller class sizes could mean the difference between catching up or remaining behind in the future.

Other studies have found class size reduction benefits for middle school and secondary students as well, but these findings are less conclusive than for the early grades.  A study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education, for example, found that class size reduction had a positive impact on student achievement in the upper grades.  Middle and secondary students in smaller classes were found to have higher levels of engagement, lower drop-out rates, and greater measures of persistence and self-esteem.

Low-income and students of color benefit from small class sizes the most

Small class sizes are most beneficial in the early grades, and they have the most positive impact on low-income students and students of color.  Many of these students face an opportunity gap that makes it more difficult for marginalized students to reach grade-level academic proficiency.  Schools must determine the best way to address these needs, and reducing class size may be a particularly good approach for low-income students and students of color. The positive effect of class size reduction for students of color was about double that of white students, and some researchers expect these effects could narrow the racial opportunity gap by about one-third.  While reducing classroom size requires increased investment, the long-term benefits for schools with a high proportion of low-income students could exceed the costs by two to one.

Oklahoma should fund class size limits

As Oklahoma looks towards our next legislative session, there will be many debates about how to spend growing revenue collections.  Making strategic decisions about how to spend these dollars begins with taking a closer look at key factors known to directly impact student learning.  Now that we’ve provided a sorely needed teacher raise, reducing class sizes back to early ‘90s levels should be the next step to undo the damage caused by years of education cuts.


Rebecca Fine worked as the Education Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Coordinator at OK Policy from July 2018 until December 2020. Originally from New York, she began her career in education as an Oklahoma teacher. Rebecca proudly comes from a family of educators, and spent four years teaching middle school in Tulsa and Union Public Schools. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from the University of Rochester and received an M.A. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

5 thoughts on “Beyond Teacher Pay: Class size matters

  1. “One of the most consistent findings in education research is that class size impacts student outcomes.”

    This is simply not true. There are few truly rigorous studies on class size and those that do exist show mixed results. The Tennessee STAR study you cite is one that shows BIG decreases in class size have sustainable benefits when implemented in the early years.

    While the benefits of reduced class sizes are debatable the costs are not. It is the most expensive education reform possible. A reduction of the order proved in the STAR study would require about an 80% increase in teachers, buildings, administrators, etc. Add to that an increase in teacher pay to attract those additional teachers and you have a financial non-starter.

  2. As a teacher smaller class sizes mean less discipline problems and a better way to help lower level kids get better in the classroom!

  3. Like Mr Perkins I know from experiences in my classrooms that smaller classes (to a limit as outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in “Tipping Point”) are better classes. My classroom was built to hold 24-28 as mandated by 1017 when the wing was added and struggles to allow my classes of 30 plus to perform safely and efficiently. My number 1 wish is a reduction of just 10-20% in my student load. I am convinced that would help many other teachers in this state.

    I agree with Mr Parker that we are overdue to quantify the cost of class size reduction. Unlike Mr Parker, I don’t envision needing a near doubling of resources as I think we can make gains well before the Tennessee STAR levels. OK Policy or a specialist in education economics could help by building out the dollars it would take for a couple logical reduction schemes.

    I know that Norman teachers stayed at the walkout last spring because we needed more than a raise. Class size reduction is the next boost Ed needs to attract and retain quality teachers and boost our public trust in for public education. So class size reduction is more than improving classroom outcomes, it is about maintaining quality teachers. There are externalities that probably have not been picked up by studies in the literature.

  4. I do not need a study to tell me whether or not a smaller class benefits any student. I was blessed to have a class of 11 last year, and no one can convince me that those students didn’t have a more positive experience than did their peers in my classes of 30+. The time spent dealing with discipline issues in a large class takes away from the learning environment. That small class became a family who looked out for one another, and they still maintain contact with one another since they have graduated. Some of those students were on the fringe of the school social circles, but they had a place to belong. That made a significant difference in their school experience.

  5. Don Parker, are you the same person with ties to KIPP and who wrote the editorial (Tulsa World, Aug 14, 2018) about using technology to save money by increasing class size? There’s an interesting article in today’s NYT (“The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected: America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether”). Large class sizes and “blended learning” (using screens/technology as the primary way to teach) is not an effective or efficient way to educate children. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Small class sizes do matter, especially with children and teens who have emotional, physical, social, academic issues (i.e. EVERY classroom).

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