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Does Class Size Matter?

The provincial government recently announced its plans to increase the average class size for grades 9 to 12. Their plan is to increase class sizes to 28, up from the current average of 22. That’s an increase of more than 27% more students in classrooms. This change has been proposed for the next (2019-2020) school year, however, the government hasn’t made anything official yet.

With respect to younger students, the government is not planning to change class sizes for students in kindergarten to Grade 3 and will be one additional student per classroom for grades 4 to 8.

Why the student increase in high school classrooms? Ontario Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, argues that increasing the average size of high school classes “benefits students across the province by making them more resilient.” She went on to say that students preparing to attend post-secondary education lack coping skills and resiliency. She theorizes that increasing class sizes in high school prepares students for the reality of post-secondary school, as well as the working world.

The consequences of larger class sizes

Is Education Minister Lisa Thompson right? Not necessarily. A recent review of research around class size by Professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (published by the University of Colorado Boulder) shows class size is important. As the chair of the Institute for Policy Research’s Program on Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies, Professor Diane Whitmore wrote a review of the research which includes the following policy recommendations, which are considered consequences to larger class sizes:

  • Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes and one that can be directly determined by policy. Increasing class sizes can harm student outcomes.
  • Increasing class size will harm children’s test scores in the short run and their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future.
  • The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.
  • Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.

The benefits of smaller class sizes

Professor Schanzenbach explains the benefits of smaller class sizes, which is based on the research she has analyzed:

  • Small class sizes are linked to higher achievement and include high-quality teachers who can accommodate their instruction to meet the needs of their students.
  • Smaller classes are tied to greater levels of student engagement.
  • Smaller classes mean students can spend an increased amount of time on tasks and learning.

Professor Schanzenbach notes that even the best teachers are limited in how they can serve students when they are faced with more students.

When we look at the research, it seems that class size matters and larger class size is likely to be harmful to education. What are your thoughts about increased class sizes and do you think it will be harmful to students?


National Education Policy Center (