Class sizes are getting bigger, but does it really matter? “The relationship between class size and student outcomes is murky,” Hechinger’s Tamara Henry writes in USA Today
In the early 1990s, when many states were flush with cash, policymakers championed the findings of a 1985 experiment in Tennessee. The Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project compared academic achievement in small classes of 13 to 17 low-income students with that of students in classes that had 22 to 25 students. The experiment found modest but lasting gains for impoverished African-American students in the much smaller classes in kindergarten and first grade. States extrapolated from those findings to justify spending billions to make relatively modest cuts in class size in all schools, not just in those serving the poor.
California spent $20 billion to lower class size to 20 students in K-3. A follow-up study found no achievement gains, in part because districts had to hire poorly qualified teachers to lead extra classes.
The program was very popular, says Michael Kirst, an emeritus Stanford education professor.
“One lesson from California is that with parents, smaller class size is overwhelmingly favorable, and they don’t give a fig about the research that says this is not going to help their kids,” he says. “They intuitively believe that small class sizes will allow more individual attention.”
Schools with easy-to-teach students were able to hire qualified teachers. Inner-city schools saw a significant decline in teacher quality.
In 2002, Florida voters to cut class size over time in all grades.
The state estimates that it will cost an additional $353 million this year, on top of the $16 billion the state has spent so far, to meet the requirements. In November, Florida voters will be asked to loosen those requirements to avoid massive spending cuts.
The Florida program had no effect on student achievement, according to a Harvard study released in May.
It’s more important to keep the best teachers than to keep classes small for all students, says Dan Goldhaber of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell. “The effects of class-size reduction are pretty marginal,” except in the early grades for disadvantaged students.
However, Kirst warns that California schools are facing “a very dangerous period. We are increasing class size to extremely high levels.
“I don’t worry about going from 20 to 25 students that much, or 15 to 20,” he says. “But when you go from 20 to 35 in a year or two, I don’t think we don’t know the effects of that.”
Years ago, I read research saying that most teachers teach in the same way — lecturing and asking questions — whether they have 35 students or 30 or 25 or even 20 in the class. Some said class size has to fall to 15 students to change the average teacher’s approach; others said classes with 10 to 12 students are needed. Today’s teachers, trained to be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage,” may have a harder time with the class sizes of yesteryear.