TCS Daily

Size Matters

By Joanne Jacobs - February 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Floridians are facing a multi-billion-dollar bill over the next eight years to pay for small classes in kindergarten through 12th grade. Amendment 9 passed narrowly in the November election: By 2010, classes will be set at 18 children in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 students in high school classes. It could cost $27 billion over the next eight years.

At least half the states have enacted or are considering class-size reductions, though none affecting as many grades as Florida's.

California is spending an estimated $1.6 billion - an extra $850 per student - this year to limit K-3 classes to 20 students. Meanwhile, districts are faced with cutting $400 per student to help balance the state budget, which is as much as $35 billion in the red.
Unfortunately, most of the billions of dollars spent on smaller classes will be wasted.
Starting in 1985, Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) compared K-3 classes with 12 to 17 students with "large" classes of 22 to 26 students. The small classes produced lasting gains, especially for minority students.

Previous studies found little benefit from class size reduction. But STAR classes were smaller, breaking the 20-student mark. The state had plenty of teachers, so there was no need to compromise on teacher quality.

Educators warned that cutting classes to 20 students might not reproduce STAR's results - especially if schools hired inexperienced, untrained teachers. But nobody listened.

California's K-3 classes were reduced from an average of 30 to a maximum of 20 students, starting in 1996. Results have been mixed, concludes a National Bureau of Economic Research study:

All else equal, smaller classes raise third-grade mathematics and reading achievement, particularly for lower-income students. However, the expansion of the teaching force required to staff the additional classrooms appears to have led to a deterioration in average teacher quality in schools serving a predominantly black student body. This deterioration partially or, in some cases, fully offset the benefits of smaller classes, demonstrating the importance of considering all implications of any policy change.

Affluent districts hired experienced teachers away from troubled schools in South Central Los Angeles. Inner-city schools hired anybody with a college degree who hadn't been arrested for child molesting. Unprepared novices quit in large numbers and were replaced by new novices.

The study found an "alarming possibility that CSR [class size reduction] may not benefit or may actually harm the most disadvantaged students."

Teacher inexperience led to a 3 percent decline in students reading at the 50th percentile or higher; that precisely canceled the 3 percent rise linked to smaller classes. In math, scores fell by 4 percent.

In Los Angeles, schools with high percentages of blacks and schools with high percentages of low-income students suffered large declines in math achievement as a result of CSR. Black inner-city students, who did the best under STAR, didn't benefit in California because they were the least likely to be taught by competent teachers.
Students who aren't disadvantaged are the most likely to be taught by experienced teachers. But their benefit from small classes was very small, perhaps because they don't need the extra attention.

A research consortium studying California's program found no proof that class-size reduction improved elementary achievement scores.

Smaller classes are so popular with parents and teachers that it will be hard to implement the consortium's sensible recommendations:

  • Target class-reduction money at the neediest students. Lower classes to less than 15, at least in the early grades, to help low-income students and those who aren't fluent in English. (And conduct a controlled study to see if the results replicate STAR. )

  • Target the newest, neediest teachers: Guarantee a class of 20 to novice teachers, while letting veterans handle classes of 25.

  • Target key grades: Go for 15-student classes in kindergarten and first grade, then go up to 25 students.

  • Don't lower class size in higher grades without qualified teachers and classrooms, the report urged.

A national study by three regional education laboratories made almost identical recommendations. That study praised small classes for reducing teachers' classroom management burden, and found students are more engaged when there's fewer of them. But it warned that significant gains in learning require very small classes: 20 may be too large. So it suggested experimenting with classes of 15 or less in one or two grades. Or perhaps reading and math groups should be kept to 15 students, while larger classes are allowed for science, social studies, phys ed, art, music, etc.

The STAR research, as well as a smaller study done in North Carolina, suggest that the main benefits occur in the first year a student is in a small class and are sustained - or increase slightly - after that. Economist Alan Krueger says a possible explanation is that attending a small class in the lower grades may confer a one-time "school socialization effect" that permanently raises the level of student achievement.

In California, with draconian cuts looming, a bill moving through the Legislature would let schools raise some K-3 classes to 22 students, as long as the average stays at 20. Even a change that modest will save millions of dollars. I think it's possible schools will get flexibility to play with their numbers during the budget crunch. Long-term, however, it's hard to see politicians taking 20-student classes from the middle class so poor kids can learn in 15-student classes. It would make sense. But don't hold your breath.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush blames class-size reduction for $800 million in budget cuts to health and social services. For the first year of the program, he proposes boosting school spending by $899 million - $247 per student - and raising utility taxes to cover $2 billion in bonds needed to build more classrooms.

Any gains from small classes are likely to be wiped out by the costs. Barring a massive tax increase, Florida schools eventually will have to eliminate all classes that aren't required, such as art, music, drama and computer science. To find enough teachers, schools will have to lower hiring standards.

The alternative is to adopt Clintonian definitions of what constitutes a "class" and a "student" and a "teacher." Lawmakers might find a way to recount "18" and "22" and "25" too. After all, it's Florida.

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