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.



8 Comments to “Are smaller class sizes better? It’s complicated”

  1. Yup, classrooms are way more inclusive, in all sorts of ways. I wonder if technology has also made a big difference in improving achievement levels for hearing impaired students.


  2. “And don’t forget that the entire African American population in the South was shunted into terrible, poverty stricken schools in that era.”

    I think the history was actually a bit more complicated than that. I seem to remember that there were some very good schools in the South for African Americans that were run by idealistic Northerners. Also, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was initially founded in 1881 as a teacher-training college to train teachers for black schools.

    Also, Dunbar High School in Washington DC (apparently the country’s first public high school for African Americans) was a pretty amazing place during segregation. It eventually sank into the mediocrity that is now so typical of DC schools, but during its glory days, it produced a lot of prominent alumni. Wikipedia says “It was known for its excellent academics, enough so that some black parents moved to Washington specifically so their children could attend it. Its faculty was paid well by the standards of the time, earning parity pay to Washington’s white school teachers because they were federal employees. It also boasted a remarkably high number of graduates who went on to higher education, and a generally successful student body.” Also, “Dunbar High School was considered the nation’s best high school for African Americans during the first half of the 20th century. It helped make Washington, DC, an educational and cultural capital.” “Following desegregation and demolition of the original facility, the school’s prestige dropped notably.”,_D.C.)

    I don’t know what the era of desegregation looked like in DC, but I lived in DC up until 2007 and researched the public school system pretty thoroughly, and I can say pretty confidently that eventually there were no good public high schools in DC anymore for students of any color, certainly nothing comparable to the old Dunbar, and nothing comparable to the better high schools of suburban MD or VA. There were actually a lot of good public elementary schools in DC, but few to no good public choices for middle school or high school. I’m sure that a lot of complicated factors that entered into that (the post-war exodus to the suburbs, other good career options than teaching for talented African Americans, etc.), but nonetheless, it would be just as wrong to paint the past as all poverty and ignorance and our era as the reverse, just as much as it is to over-nostalgize. Also, when I last did the research on this, the “desegregated” DC public schools often had minority populations of 97 or 98%.


  3. “In 1960, forty-three percent of the white population completed high school, while only twenty percent of the black population did the same. African Americans had little to no access to higher education and only three percent graduated from college.” I am trying to find the source for this, but it sounds about right to me. Is this really better success than today’s schools?”

    If the 1960 student was able to go straight from K-12 school to work, yes, I think that has to be counted as more of a success. (And the easy availability of reasonably-paid work does contribute to the drop-out rate–a higher drop-out rate can be a sign of a healthy economy with a high demand for labor.) There was a lot more to the economic success story of the 1950s and 1960s that than just the schools’ efforts, but it is certainly a mark of a well-functioning society when students are able to go straight from free public K-12 education into the workforce. There have been a lot of economic changes since then that the public schools are not responsible for, but I think our society currently is characterized by a lot of inefficiency in launching young adults. We keep them busy collecting expensive pieces of paper and we don’t really know what to do with them.


  4. While today’s high school graduation rates are higher, in at least two states (NY & TX) where I’ve seen the data less than 50% of those graduates are deemed ready for college or career. I suspect many of these students leave high school as poorly prepared as those high school dropouts of the 1960s.


  5. “Is that really career-ready?”

    If they were able to support themselves, yes. Remember that during the 20th century many of those poor Southerners migrated North or West with their substandard educations and did quite well, relatively speaking.


  6. “Career ready is a whole different ballgame now.”

    The suggestion is that the percentage of high school graduates who are not college or career ready has increased over the last 50 years. But is the main reason for this the stagnant or declining high school achievement levels? Or the disappearing manufacturing jobs?

    It seems all the added funding, lowered teacher/student ratios, and other improvements over the years should have bumped up achievement levels so that by today’s standards more high school graduates would be ready for careers. To put it another way, it seems more high school graduates today would have mastered basic algebra given all the resources poured into education. Many of today’s service or “knowledge” jobs should be able to be done by high school graduates, but apparently that’s not the case because HS graduates have not mastered some basic academic skills.


  7. “Many of today’s service or “knowledge” jobs should be able to be done by high school graduates, but apparently that’s not the case because HS graduates have not mastered some basic academic skills.”

    That’s another issue–a high school diploma from the early 20th century was a very big deal, signifying a major academic achievement (an 8th grade education was the early 20th century standard). The increase in the number of high school graduates throughout the 20th century was largely achieved by watering down expectations (see Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back: A Century of Failed Education Reforms for details). We’re probably experiencing something very similar with college degrees right now. It’s been a very expensive form of self-delusion.


  8. “They migrated for UNION jobs, manufacturing jobs that do not exist any longer.”

    Right. In fact, if you want to work in US car manufacturing today, it would be a good idea to migrate South. BMW makes cars in South Carolina and there are two Toyota plants in poor, benighted KY. (Toyota has a plant in Indiana and one in CA, too, but it’s interesting how many plants they’ve put in traditionally underdeveloped areas–places like Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and Tennessee.)

    It’s almost as if a favorable economic climate trumps education (although these days, Michigan is nothing to write home about educationally).


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