Are smaller elementary-school class sizes better?

August 12, 2011

Dear Cecil:

As the parent of a six-year-old in kindergarten, I'm trying to find out about optimal class sizes. I live in San Francisco, and since the mid-90s California has mandated minimal class sizes, based on a 20-plus-year-old study from Tennessee. I don't know if this is the best way to either improve children's education or save money, since there seems to be a lot of infighting on both sides of the argument. So what's the deal — is a class size of 22 first-graders better than a class size of 26? How about 20, or 16?

Cecil replies:

Interesting phenomenon at work here. We’ll call it dollars vs. common sense.

Education experts had long conjectured that young kids learn better in small classes but lacked the research to prove it. In the 1980s Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who would later become education secretary under George H.W. Bush, decided he’d fix that. The one government type in this whole sorry story who seems to have had a clue, Alexander persuaded the legislature to pony up several million dollars for Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), a multiyear experiment involving roughly 6,500 kids and 330 classrooms in 80 schools throughout the state. The idea: reduce class size for some kids in grades K through 3 from 20-25 pupils to 13-17, and see if they do better on standardized tests.

The consensus is they did. On average, reading and math scores for kids in small classes increased nearly 10 percentage points compared to students in regular-size classes. What’s more, the improvement persisted even after the kids moved up into regular classes, and minority kids’ numbers improved twice as much as everybody else’s.

Terrific, right? That’s what educators in California thought. Concerned about lousy reading scores and crowded schools and hoping to emulate Tennessee’s success, they pushed through the Class Size Reduction (CSR) initiative, which launched in 1996.

Common sense, had it been applied, might have suggested approaching CSR cautiously. Among the problems:

  • First, even if the Tennessee experiment did work as designed, nobody really knew why. Stanford economist Edward Lazear hypothesized that smaller classes were less prone to disruption, enabling teachers to spend less time maintaining discipline and more time teaching. If so, two obvious corollaries might be (a) kids in larger classes will learn just fine if everyone is well-behaved and (b) a cheaper way to improve achievement would be to add teachers and reduce class sizes in only the most chaotic schools, presumably in the toughest neighborhoods.
  • Second, California wasn’t Tennessee. The small classes in Project STAR had on average about 15 kids compared to 22 in the regular classes, whereas the CSR initiative reduced the average California class size from 29, the highest in the nation, to 20. Sure, big reduction, but the research leading up to the Tennessee study suggested you didn’t see much benefit till class size got down to 15 or below..
  • Third and most important, the STAR program was just one study — the cheery outcome might have been a fluke.

A reasonable approach, therefore, would have been to start out with a pilot program, to see if California could replicate Tennessee’s findings on a small scale before betting the ranch. But that’s not what happened. While one hesitates to reconstruct the thought process, the idea seems to have been: Who needs caution? We’ve got cash — specifically, a state treasury flush with tax revenue from the 1990s tech boom. California educators launched CSR as a full-bore statewide program, ultimately hiring 23,500 additional teachers at a cost of well over a billion dollars annually. Participation in CSR wasn’t mandatory, but the state paid out substantial bonuses to schools that got on board, and pretty soon most had. 
 What happened? Let’s review.

  • If you want smaller classes you need more classrooms, and California schools were already full. Some districts had to shove aside other programs to make room for more primary-grade classes. Many of the poorest districts with the worst crowding couldn’t find space at all and so got no benefit from CSR.
  • Hiring so many teachers so fast meant standards had to be relaxed, and the professional qualifications of California teachers noticeably declined. This trend hit harder in poorer schools.
  • Demonstrable impact on test results? By and large, none.

That’s not to say reducing primary-grade class size is useless, merely that it’s not a proven approach. A similar program in Wisconsin reportedly produced gains. However, since the state launched other educational initiatives around the same time there’s no way of knowing how much the smaller classes had to do with it. One appreciates that parents clamoring for instant results don’t like waiting while the social scientists patiently try A, then B. But there’s really no other sensible way to do it.

Don’t worry, though. Californians, and Americans generally, won’t make the same mistake twice. Not because we’ve learned anything, but because then we had money, and now we don’t.

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References

Bohrnstedt, George W. and Stecher, Brian M. (eds) “Class Size Reduction in California: Early Evaluation Findings, 1996-1998” Capstone Report, CSR Research Consortium, June, 1999.

Bohrnstedt, George W. and Stecher, Brian M. (eds) “What We Have Learned About Class Size Reduction in California” Capstone Report, CSR Research Consortium, September, 2002.

Cho, Hyunkuk et al. “Do Reductions in Class Size Raise Students’ Test Scores? Evidence from Population Variation in Minnesota’s Elementary Schools” Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, June, 2010.

Hanushek, Eric A. “Some Findings From an Independent Investigation of the Tennessee STAR Experiment and From Other Investigations of Class Size Effects” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 21.2 (1999): 143-163.

Krueger, Alan B. “Economic Considerations and Class Size” The Economic Journal 113 (2003): F34–F63.

McKee, Graham et al. “Disruption, Achievement and the Heterogeneous Benefits of Smaller Classes” Department of Economics, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 01002-5000, February 2010.

Mosteller, Frederick “The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early Grades” Critical Issues for Children and Youths 5.2 (1995): 113-127.

Mueller, Steffen “Teacher Experience and the Class Size Effect - Experimental Evidence” Institut für Wirtschaftspolitik und Quantitative Wirtschaftsforschung, Discussion Paper, 2011.

Nye, Barbara et al. “The Long-Term Effects of Small Classes: A Five-Year Follow-Up of the Tennessee Class Size Experiment” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 21.2 (1999): 127-142.

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