Archive for August 17th, 2012

August 17, 2012

Are smaller class sizes better? It’s complicated

by Grace

Class sizes have decreased by 40% since 1960 with no resulting improvement in achievement levels.  This historical data does not definitively prove anything about the effects of class size, but it certainly does not help support the cause for smaller class sizes.

In addition to class size, many other factors have influenced student achievement over the last 50 years.  Teacher caliber and preparation has changed, along with curriculum.  Classrooms have become more inclusive, presenting different challenges to teachers.  The home environment has changed, with a higher percentage of single-parent households.  Electronic distractions are a bigger problem today at the same time technology has made some aspects of learning easier.  It should be clear that reducing class size is not a magic bullet that will counteract all problems that public schools face.

Reducing class size is expensive.  Any decision to allocate funds to cut class sizes has implications that affect other areas of learning, as noted in a recent report, “Smart Class-Size Policies for Lean Times” released by the Southern Regional Educational Board

Complicating matters is the high cost of reducing class size — one of the most expensive education reforms. Lowering the nationwide average K-12 class size would cost $10 billion a year, the report finds. Furthermore, decreasing class size would require more teacher positions to be filled, and could lower average teacher quality in the process.

The benefits to reducing class size are unclear, as noted by Chingos and  Whitehurst in the research they conducted for the Brookings Institute last year.

… Despite there being a large literature on class-size effects on academic achievement, only a few studies are of high enough quality and sufficiently relevant to be given credence as a basis for legislative action. 

Nick Gillespie of asks if we should hire more teachers, a political question of the season.

When it comes to teachers, in 2008 (the last year for which the federal government lists actual data), there were 15.3 pupils per teacher in public K-12 schools. That’s the lowest recorded number. In 1998, the number was 16.4 and in 1978, it was 19.3. Over this same time period, the amount of money per student has increased tremendously and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have stayed flat at best. Since 1970, the number of public-school students has increased by about 9 percent while the number of public-school employees (teachers plus everyone else) has increased by 96 percent. Something ain’t right there. It seems quite plausible that states and local school districts can lose a good chunk of teachers without significantly impairing the quality (that may not be the right word) of K-12 public education.


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