The Effects of Student-Teacher Ratios

Packed classrooms can detract from learning.
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If you’ve ever tried to command the attention of more than a handful of youngsters -- or, let’s face it, adults -- it’s not hard to see why low student-teacher ratios are highly sought-after in the education world. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall ratio of students to teachers is expected to fall through 2021, as more teachers are hired in both public and private schools. This is good news for students and educators alike.

1 The Ratio Rationale

A summary of research published in the journal “Research in Education” found that student performance drops as student-teacher ratios increase. In one study, researchers measured math scores among fourth-graders and found that smaller classes resulted in the best testing outcomes. Notably, the group that benefited most from lower ratios was the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The authors of the journal article also argue too-high ratios -- with large numbers of students supported by only a single teacher -- are a burden to educators, who must spend more time disciplining pupils or trying to gain their attention. The needs of individual students go undiscovered, and the quality of instruction plummets as ratios rise.

2 Teaching Assistants

One common way school districts and institutions of learning improve the student-teacher ratio is to hire teaching assistants, or TAs. In this way, a second educator is present in the classroom to provide additional support to the primary teacher and to guide students. A 2007 report in the “British Educational Research Journal” examined the impact of TAs in the classroom. According to the researchers, the presence of assistant teachers does not have direct, measurable impact on student learning outcomes. Still, researchers note numerous indirect benefits, including enhancing student attention and boosting one-on-one interaction between teachers and pupils.

3 Higher Education

Among colleges and universities, the student-to-faculty ratio is often a major selling point touted on promotional materials to emphasize academic quality and rigor. Research published in 2011 in the journal “Higher Education Management and Policy” notes that higher student-faculty ratios are an obstacle to critical interaction between the two groups. Scholars attend universities to glean direct knowledge from expert faculty members, but with too many students to attend to, instructors may be left to drown in paperwork, curriculum development and grading. Lower student-teacher ratios allow faculty to carefully tailor their teaching -- as opposed to auditorium-style lectures -- and involve students in more advanced assignments and even official research projects.

4 Measure of Resources

One study published in “Sociology of Education” even drew a correlation between student-teacher ratios and adult criminal behavior leading to incarceration. The researchers looked at historic ratios -- starting as early as 1910 -- as a measure of access to educational resources. Their findings indicated that states with high student-teacher ratios also have higher rates of adult incarceration. The researchers noted that the link may not be direct -- since high ratios likely do not expressly cause the risk of incarceration to go up -- but say the parallels between education opportunities for youths and their well-being as adults are undeniable.

Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.