Smaller class sizes are favoured by some parents, teachers and administrators, as many believe they not only put less pressure on teachers, but students are also able to enjoy greater individual support from teachers this way.
However, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that evidence for this has been mixed; smaller classes may “only be beneficial for some students and under certain circumstances – and they come at a cost.”
Smaller classes mean a need to increase the number of classes, which translates to the added cost of getting more teachers to teach students.
The report said class sizes have been falling in many OECD countries and that “these decreases are often the result of changing demographics, although cutting class sizes can also be a popular policy move with teachers and parents”.
How much would it cost to reduce class size by one student?
— OECD Education (@OECDEduSkills) February 6, 2019
OECD Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher wrote for the BBC: “When education budgets are focused on cutting class sizes, the figures show there are usually reductions elsewhere – in particular in lower increases in teachers’ pay. Across a whole education system, smaller class sizes result in a higher number of classes, which require more teachers to lead them, which in turn means higher costs.
“As well as needing more teachers, cutting class sizes can also mean building more classrooms and expanding schools,” he said.
So, how much would teachers’ salaries have to be cut to compensate for smaller classes?
“The size of the reduction varies depending on the current levels of teachers’ salaries and estimated class size in each country. In Turkey, for example, where class sizes are large and teacher salaries are relatively low, a decrease in class size by one student could be offset by cutting teacher salaries by US$800 a year. In Switzerland, the cut would have to be US$5,300,” said the report.
The alternative is for countries to keep their total spending and teachers’ salaries constant, but adjust the amount of time teachers spend in the classroom.
The report suggests doing this by increasing the number of hours teachers spend teaching, or by reducing the number of hours for students to be instructed.
“In both cases, this would decrease the number of teachers needed at a given educational level and thereby keep the overall wage bill constant,” it said.
But before adopting these practices, countries must assess the potential trade-offs against the current situation in their country. For example, Chile has “the longest teaching time of all OECD countries, so further increases to compensate for smaller class size may be neither feasible nor desirable” said the report.
As the report notes that there is no clear link between the average class size and student performance, policymakers will need to decide whether the costly measure of reducing class size is worth the benefits and how it can best affect student outcome.