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Education Reporter

Sizing Up Classrooms
It's time to expose the "smaller-is-better" myth
By Larry Sand

This past July, a few thousand union activists and their progressive allies held a "Save Our Schools March and Call to Action" rally in Washington, D.C. Attendees went to conferences and workshops, and writers like Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch spoke about the indignities schools have purportedly been forced to endure in the wake of the economic downturn. One of the pervasive themes of the event was the "class-size crisis."

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Teachers like smaller classes, and understandably so. The advantages include fewer papers to grade, students to manage, and parents to deal with. The teachers' unions like smaller classes, too. Smaller classes mean more teachers — and more union dues. And parents like smaller classes because they believe that their children benefit from more individual attention. Everyone agrees that smaller classes are better, right?

In a word: no. Much of the rhetoric supporting small classes is demagogic and runs afoul of the research. Let's begin with the oft-heard union claim that classes are getting larger. Not quite. A U.S. Department of Labor chart, courtesy of teacher-union watchdog Mike Antonucci, tells the tale. Since the mid-1950s, the number of public-education employees — including teachers — has risen steadily and inexorably nationwide. Brief hiring disruptions occur only during recessionary times, which result in a minor diminution in personnel. Immediately following the downturn, however, the hiring resumes with gusto. The result is that since the mid-1950s, the U.S. student population has increased by 60%, while the number of public education workers, including teachers, administrators, and other non-certificated staff, has exploded by 300%. (For every new member in California, the union pockets more than $600 a year in dues.) Antonucci has reported on this phenomenon for years. When the economy inevitably contracts, the bellyaching and the hand-wringing about laying educators off begin anew.

What's more, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2007, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 15.5 to one. In California, going back to 1999, the average class size across all elementary and secondary schools was 20.9 pupils. Today it is 21.3 — a paltry 1.9 percent increase, hardly indicative of a crisis.

Does class size matter to education outcomes? According to Jay Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, most of the evidence on which the "smaller-is-better" crowd relies comes from Tennessee's STAR project, an experiment conducted in the 1980s, the methodology of which has been questioned by researchers. Other studies tell a different story. In a 1998 study, for example, Stanford's Caroline Hoxby found that "reductions in class size from a base of 15 to 30 students have no effect on student achievement." In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15% of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72% found no effect at all — and 13% found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way "to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial."

For many, the possibility that reducing class sizes may have negative effects on student achievement might at first seem counterintuitive. But what happened to student test scores as classes got smaller between 1970 and 2007? Nothing, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, widely regarded as the nation's report card. The fact is, scores have stagnated for almost 40 years. Moreover, classes are larger in Korea and Japan — two countries that regularly clobber us in educational comparisons.

Smaller classes also bring unintended consequences. Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews noted in a 2006 story how California had a decade earlier authorized a $650-per-pupil bonus to schools with kindergarten-to-third-grade classes of no more than 20 students. "This produced many more classes that required more teachers, many of whom, parents complained, were inexperienced and ineffective," Mathews wrote. Is it possible that larger classes and fewer teachers might even be preferable? Yes, if the teachers let go are the weaker performers. As Hanushek argues: "If you eliminate the bottom five percent of teachers in terms of effectiveness, or if you replaced five to eight percent of the worst teachers with an average teacher, U.S. achievement would rise to somewhere between Canada and Finland."

If we accept Hanushek's numbers and dismiss the lowest-performing 5 percent of teachers without hiring replacements, a class of 20 would then increase by just one student. Ask any parent if he'd rather have his child in a class of 21 kids with a high-performing educator or in a class of 20 with a mediocre one. With only a finite amount of money available for education, fewer working teachers would free up funds for increased salaries, books, computers, or whatever the individual school district chooses. And, as a bonus, retaining fewer teachers would also mean fewer central-office bureaucrats and a smaller pension-fund burden on cash-strapped states.

Considering the fiscal straits in which California finds itself, continuing to insist on smaller classes is foolhardy. In fact, bigger classes could benefit some children and the economy. But you won't hear such heretical thoughts voiced at any "Call to Action" event. Instead, you'll see all the usual suspects reciting the same old shibboleths. It's well past time to lay the small-classes myth to rest.
Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. This article was originally published in the July 2011 online edition of City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute.
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