Class Size Reduction


Class size reduction is one of the most popular educational reforms – parents love it and so do teachers.  It seems obvious to everyone that the students will get more individual attention, teachers will spend less time on classroom management and paperwork, and everyone will be more highly engaged in learning.

But 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.  To be effective, classes must be taught by competent, trained teachers and housed in good schools with adequate classroom space.

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 racial minorities, and can result in better long-term educational outcomes.

But let’s think for a minute about something called “effect size”.  Effect size quantifies the actual real-world effect of reforms and interventions.  Is the positive effect actually big enough to make a difference?  Are we getting any bang for the buck?  And, in fact, the effect size of class size reduction is generally below average.

We need to pay attention to effect size because 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.

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?  Looking at effect sizes, the answer is, in general, no.  Are there more effective ways of using those education dollars?

Here are some suggestions, from researchers and from the federal government:

  1. Provide smaller classes in the early grades to those students who benefit the most: disadvantaged children, children in poverty, minority children.
  2. Provide smaller classes only at those grade levels (K-2) at which the children show the most benefit.
  3. Focus instead on providing all children with highly effective classroom teachers.
  4. 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).
  5. Use “floater” teachers, who do not have a regular classroom assignment, to lower the student/teacher ratio during core instruction in various classes.
  6. Place well-trained instructional aides in all primary classrooms.
  7. 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!

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