Class size reduction is one of the most popular educational reforms – parents love it and so do teachers. The students get more individual attention, teachers spend less time on classroom management and paperwork, and everyone is more highly engaged in learning.
Class size reduction is also one of the most expensive educational reforms. Not only do smaller classes require more professional staff in schools (especially classroom teachers), they also require more classrooms – and that means building bigger schools and/or more schools.
The most famous research studies on class size reduction began in the 1980’s. The results indicated that small classes can increase student achievement, particularly for disadvantaged boys, and can result in better long-term educational outcomes – but not consistently across studies. The classes must be taught by competent, trained teachers and housed in good schools with adequate classroom space. Class size reduction is not a slam dunk!
The federal government began working on a class size reduction program in 2000, providing states with money to hire and train new teachers. States were allowed to use federal money to hire more teachers in order to reduce class size, and many chose to do so. By 2010, 35 states had laws restricting class sizes. But the continuing budget problems that states have faced since the recession have changed state policies. Nineteen states have eliminated or relaxed their class size regulations and are looking at other ways to increase instructional time for individual students. Florida continues to have a constitutional amendment that mandates low class sizes in all grades, K-12.
The expense of class size reduction is staggering. There are approximately 50 million public school teachers in the U.S., and states currently pay, on average, about $3600 per child in teacher salaries, with an estimated average class size of 25. Nationwide, if we lowered the student/teacher ratio by one student in a classroom for one year, it would cost $12 billion in teacher salaries and require about 225,000 more classrooms. It currently costs about 7 million dollars to build an elementary school.
Here are the conclusions I draw from reviews of the research on class size reduction:
- Large reductions in class size – less than 20 students in a class – have a significant long-term effect on academic achievement and educational outcomes.
- These effects are most significant when students are in small classes during the first three years of school.
- Class size reduction is a particularly powerful intervention for students in poverty and minority students.
- Class size reduction does not have a significant effect on academic achievement if the quality of the instruction is compromised with unqualified teachers, crowded schools, and inappropriate classroom space.
- Certain key elements must be present to get significant effects. These include class sizes of less than 20 students per teacher, small class sizes for several years in the early grades, opportunities for more instructional time (before school, after school, early intervention, summer services), and instructional delivery that takes advantage of small class size (e.g. immediate feedback, more interaction).
So here’s the question: what is the cost-benefit ratio for class size reduction? Does the significant expense of class size reduction generally result in a significant increase in academic achievement? Are the taxpayers getting a lot of bang for their buck, or are there more effective ways of using those education dollars?
Here are some suggestions, from researchers and from the federal government:
- Provide smaller classes in the early grades only to those students who benefit the most: disadvantaged children, children in poverty, minority children.
- Provide smaller classes only at those grade levels (K-2) at which the children show the most benefit.
- Focus on providing all children with highly effective classroom teachers.
- Extend the school day and/or the school year.
- Create smaller instructional groups served by highly qualified teachers for sustained blocks of time on a regular basis (e.g. group and regroup across classes at a grade level).
- Use “floater” teachers, who do not have a regular classroom assignment, to lower the student/teacher ratio during core instruction in various classes.
- Place well-trained instructional aides in all primary classrooms.
- Use distance learning and other web-based instructional opportunities to individualize instruction.
- Reduce the amount of time teachers spend on clerical tasks and student supervision (hall duty, bus duty, lunch duty).
What would I suggest we do in the real world of public education? My first priority would be to provide all children with a great classroom teacher! After that, I would provide the most vulnerable children with very small classes (18 students or less) for the first three years of school. It would be money well-spent, with long-term benefits for the children and for society. For everyone else, I would cap class sizes at 25 students and provide at least one “floater” teacher at each grade level to lower ratios as needed.
What do you think? Remember – when it comes to public schools, what we want for our own children is what we should want for all children!