Food For Thought

Class Size:  How Many Is Too Many?

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Does lowering or increasing the number of students in a teacher’s classroom significantly affect student instruction? The answer to this question is constantly debated in educational and political circles.

The Florida state legislature recently proposed mandating maximum class sizes in elementary, middle and senior high schools. The governor has stated his opposition to any legislation that would establish state mandates for class sizes. He believes that the matter of class size is a local issue and best handled at the local school-board level. It’s ironic that leaders in Florida and many other states believe they have the wisdom to establish mandated state-testing schemes, but retreat when state-mandated class sizes are mentioned. I believe the issue is one of money rather than of who is best qualified to determine class-size limits. The cost of implementing testing programs is a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the cost of reducing class sizes; so, states opt for testing.

The scientific community has little problem determining maximum capacities for material objects. All bridges have a maximum capacity. Planes can only safely carry so many passengers and cargo. We even determine what the maximum safe speed is for driving on different roads.

Most public buildings have a maximum number of people that can be safely accommodated in a given room. My Grady White boat has a plate that tells me both the weight capacity and the number of people the craft can safely handle. I wouldn’t think of challenging the manufacturer’s recommendation. The state even determines the number of fish of a given species that I can catch without hindering the fish’s ability to reproduce. Your house has electrical breakers or fuses to protect against overloading the wire in your home. Why then is it so difficult to determine the number of students that a teacher can safely and effectively teach in a given classroom?

I believe the answer to this question involves two important factors or variables. The first is the intellectual- and personal-traits capacity of a teacher to work with a given number of students. The second is developing a measuring system that can determine when reduced class sizes produce significant results. I know from my personal teaching and administrative experience that different teachers can handle different amounts of students, but there are limits. I taught educational research at George Mason University, a course required of all graduate students. The recommended class size was 20 students, because of the high degree of academic/math-oriented subject matter, but I always had more than 20 students in my classes. A few years ago I accepted as many as 45 students, thinking I was doing the students and the university a favor. After several semesters of playing super teacher, I decided I was not doing the students, the university, nor myself justice by attempting to teach such an overload. I then established the parameter for class size, which included a computer for every student. In some previous classes I would have three or four students to a computer. The classes I taught that were based on factors other than my personality or ability to handle mass numbers, were far more productive when measured both quantitatively and qualitatively by students. Common sense indicates that a teacher with smaller classes can spend more individual time with each student and that’s what education is really about — the interaction of teacher and pupil.

Teachers are like fishing line; they come in different sizes and types. One common factor among all the different types of line is they all break. The more wear and tear on the line the sooner it will break. Some lines, like monofilament, have bungee-cord qualities and will stretch before they break. Braided line has little stretching ability and instantly snaps when its rated capacity is reached. A question that needs to be answered is how close to the breaking point should we operate when teaching our children? I can remember when I would argue with a school principal or guidance counselor not to put another student into a vocational class. They would usually say it’s only one more student. My evaluation of the environment concluded that one more student would cause the line to break and fishing would be over for the entire class.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.

I choose my fishing-line size and type based on the style of fishing and my individual ability to play and land a fish. Most charter-boat captains choose heavier tackle than I use because they are fishing with novices who are more interested in putting a fish in the cooler than I am. The qualitative aspect or challenge of fishing is more important to me: putting fish in the cooler is secondary. Counting the number of fish in the cooler is easy, but measuring the intellectual gain obtained from the interaction of fisherman, equipment, and fish is far more difficult. Smaller class sizes give students more of the latter, which is not easily measured with standardized testing. States have shown a reluctance to consider qualitative measurements that are more directly affected by class size than quantitative measures. The current state-sponsored measuring system emphasizes counting fish in the cooler.

I realize that the decision to have smaller class sizes creates many logistical problems. Where will we get the teachers in an already stretched profession? Who will build the schools needed to accommodate more classes? Are taxpayers willing to pay? I can’t answer these questions, but I do believe that current class sizes are definitely too large and need to be reduced. If a reduction is to occur, it must be significant. Reducing from 25 to 24 students may keep the line from breaking, but would have little effect on the overall quality of instruction. The number must be smaller. Our kids’ learning environments are just as important as bridges, planes, roads, and houses. Classroom capacities deserve to be evaluated with the same scientific care.

Finally, all this talk about fishing has motivated me to implement one of the advantages of retirement. The intellectual battle between man and fish is calling. See you on the water.

Teacher Honor Roll

In our January issue we asked our readers to nominate their best teachers for our teacher honor roll, and the mail came pouring in! We will publish a few each month until we have acknowledged all of our fine educators.

Nominator: Katie Walsh
Teacher’s Name: Ms. Nancy Brittle
School System: Fauquier County
Primary Subject: English, Art Heritage 

Ms. Brittle is a teacher who desires deeply to make a difference in the lives of those she teaches. She challenges the students to seek beyond the mere acceptance of fact and to discover for themselves the mysterious messages conveyed in the media of visual arts and literature. But, beyond that, she opens her heart to her students to be their mentor, advocate and confidante, and is a constant source of comfort, support and motivation —- extending even beyond graduation.


Nominator: Dorothy Hawkins DeShazo
Teacher’s Name: Benjamin Booten Shotwell
School System: Culpeper High School, 1941
Primary Subject: Biology & Chemistry

Mr. Shotwell captured our attention by “rabbit-hunting” (whatever we wanted to talk about?) as class began (sometimes taking a whole class period). Then we really buckled down and learned the sciences from a delightful and brilliant man.


Nominator: Mary A. Watts
Teacher’s Name: Mrs. Ruby McDaniel Mickels
School System: Campbell Co. School System
Primary Subject: Subjects for grades 1-7

Mrs. Mickels reached all her students. She knew all strengths and weaknesses of her students and taught each student well to their ability.


Nominator: Emily Tillery
Teacher’s Name: Mrs. Herbert Brown
School System: Brownsburg High School —Rockbridge County
Primary Subject: 8th Grade

She was the best teacher I ever had. You never left her class until you understood what she was teaching.



Home ] Up ] Cover Story ] Say Cheese! ] [ Food For Thought ] Dining In ] Editorial ] Reader Recipes ] Down Home ]