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Sizing up Smaller Classes

Feb. 1, 2003
The pros and cons of class-size reduction in our schools.

In November, after months of contentious debate, Florida voters endorsed a sweeping plan requiring the state's schools to set a ceiling on the number of students in every classroom from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Ratification of the class-size-reduction amendment is the biggest feather in the cap of those advocating smaller class sizes. They believe smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more individualized attention to students, manage their classrooms more effectively and provide more effective instruction that leads to better student performance.

But many are unconvinced that class-size reduction leads to significant student gains. To them, the Florida effort is a budget-busting blunder that isn't worth the cost of building thousands of additional schools and hiring teachers to fill those new classrooms.

The financial risks of pursuing class-size reduction in Florida and other jurisdictions are especially pronounced right now as nearly every state is struggling to maintain education spending levels, let alone find new revenue for more facilities and personnel.

“The program has been enormously popular with teachers and parents, but it has been expensive, and some have questioned whether it is worth the cost,” says a report by The CSR Research Consortium on class-size reduction in California. “The issue of cost effectiveness looms especially large in light of the huge shortfall in tax revenues being projected.”

The benefits

The premise that reducing class sizes can lead to improved teaching and learning is one that most teachers and parents would readily endorse. Given a choice between a classroom with 20 students and one with 30 students, who would argue that the 30-student classroom is a better environment for learning?

In a smaller classroom, a teacher has more time to get to know each student's personality and academic strengths and weaknesses; students receive more attention and are less likely to become discipline problems. With less time taken up by classroom management, teachers can spend more time helping students learn.

Advocates of smaller classes focus especially on primary grades, when children are first acclimating themselves to the school environment and learning how to read.

So as school reform gained momentum in the 1990s and a healthy economy made class-size reduction feasible, many programs were created to reduce the numbers of students in a class. The Education Commission of the States identifies 24 states that have established mandates, grant programs or other financial incentives to lower class size.

In addition, the federal class-size reduction effort, begun by the Clinton Administration in fiscal 1999, allocated funds with a goal of helping districts hire 100,000 new teachers. The Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act has incorporated the federal class-size-reduction program into a block grant program to improve teacher quality.

The costs

But reducing class size isn't cheap. Building the additional classrooms needed to accommodate smaller classes is a multi-billion-dollar proposition, and paying the additional teachers costs billions more. Funds allocated for federal and state class-size initiatives in 1999-2000 totaled nearly $3.5 billion, according to the ERIC Clearinghouse of Educational Management.

When California enacted class-size-reduction incentives in 1996, the state spent about $1 billion a year on the program. In 2002, it spent about $1.6 billion. Even at that level of funding, the incentives do not cover the entire cost of establishing smaller classrooms. For many districts, paying for smaller class sizes means diverting budget resources from other areas.

“Most districts in our statewide sample reported incurring operating costs for (class-size reduction) that exceeded state payments for it,” the CSR consortium's report says, “and these funding problems persisted, or even worsened in recent years.”

Despite significant cuts in California's budget, the class-size-reduction incentives are still in place. But many districts have indicated they won't be able to afford to hire or keep the number of teachers required to trigger the incentives.

Class-size reduction also can have costs beyond the actual expenditures of money. For instance, in California, the incentives to reduce class size resulted in a shortage of qualified teachers to fill all the newly available jobs.

“To meet the increased demand for teachers, many districts hired teachers without full credentials,” the CSR Consortium report states. “The proportion of K-3 teachers who were not fully credentialed increased from 1.8 percent… to 12.5 percent.”

The Center for Education Reform, a proponent of charter schools, contends that class sizes are irrelevant if the teacher is ineffective. “It's clear that even a class of 10 may not learn if the person leading that class does not possess high-caliber knowledge and teaching skills,” a policy brief from the group states.

In an effort to comply with mandated class sizes, some schools may resort to placing classrooms in settings that are not conducive to student learning.

“Whole schools or programs may also suffer if, for example, libraries, music rooms, special-education rooms or computer rooms are converted into classrooms, as has happened in some places,” says a policy briefing from WestEd, a regional education research laboratory.

During last year's campaign in Florida, opponents of the class-size-reduction proposal contended that it would cost the state as much as $27 billion to make the mandated class sizes a reality by 2010. Proponents countered with a much more palatable number of $4 billion. Since the amendment passed, state officials have indicated the cost won't be as high as $27 billion, but under any scenario it will be a sizable investment for the state.

The direct and indirect costs of class-size reduction persuaded the Florida Association of District School Superintendents to oppose the amendment.

“Florida is already experiencing a shortage of qualified teachers, and a significant increase in the demand for more teachers will jeopardize instructional quality,” the association argued in a white paper on the amendment. “Florida currently has a backlog in building construction and renovation that will be further exacerbated by the limitation in class sizes. Also, the financial requirements to hire new teachers to reduce class size will mean little, if any, funding for raises for current teachers and administrators.”

The evidence

It's easier to accept the argument that class-size reduction is a worthwhile pursuit when the economy is vibrant and state coffers are brimming with funds. But when money is tighter, skeptics may demand more substantive proof that class sizes make a difference.

“The sudden drop in resources since 2001 has dramatically increased the pressure to show evidence that costly education programs are indeed leading to improved student performances,” the report says.

Evidence linking smaller classes to improved performance is inconclusive. For instance, different studies have varied in their definition of what constitutes a small class size.

The CSR Research Consortium says in its 2002 report that it could not find persuasive proof that smaller classes boosted student achievement. Test scores have increased since the state launched its class-size-reduction efforts in 1997, but “we could find only limited evidence linking these gains” to class-size reduction, the report states.

Other studies have found more positive results about the effect of smaller classes. The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project in Tennessee studied class size in kindergarten through third grade and found that students in small classes (13 to 17 students) performed better than those in classes of 22 to 25. The benefits of smaller classes were greater for minority and inner-city students.

In Wisconsin, the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program began in 1996-97 to improve the academic performance of students living in poverty by creating several K-3 classrooms with a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1. Test scores have indicated a correlation between higher academic achievement and lower class size. An evaluation team from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee concluded that the major difference in smaller classes is increased individualization.

“When teachers have fewer students, they can attend to the needs of each student because they have greater knowledge of each student, they have more time for instruction resulting from reduced time spent on discipline, and they have greater enthusiasm for their work,” the team stated in its 2000-01 evaluation.

Alternatives

Those wary of the financial burdens of class-size reduction suggest that schools should pursue more cost-effective ways of improving student achievement. Those include extending the school day or school year to provide students with more academic time, providing additional training for teachers, and using technology more effectively to individualize student instruction.

The Education Commission for the States recommends that states pursuing smaller class sizes should target low-income, low-achieving schools, which could benefit most from the changes.

Researchers also suggest that once a school has reduced class size, educators need a better understanding of the dynamics of a smaller class so that teachers can be more effective.

“We need more research on understanding what classroom practices are most effective in smaller classrooms and whether these differ from best practices in larger classes,” the CSR Consortium says.

SIDEBAR: Be smart about getting small

Although studies on the effect of class-size reduction are inconclusive, the Education Commission of the States says reducing class size is most effective when:

  • Class sizes are reduced to between 15 and 19 students.

  • Specific schools, especially those with low-achieving and low-income students, are targeted.

  • Teachers are provided ongoing professional development to make the most of smaller classes.

  • Teachers are well-qualified, and the school offers a challenging curriculum. for every student.

SIDEBAR: Shrinking Florida's classrooms

Florida's class-size-reduction effort goes beyond most proposals that seek to limit the numbers of students in a classroom. More than a law that establishes a grant or incentive program, it is an amendment to Florida's constitution. Unlike many class-size initiatives, it addresses more than primary grades. It establishes maximum student enrollment for classrooms at every grade level.

By the time the amendment is fully enacted in 2010, classrooms must have a maximum enrollment of 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 in high school. To meet those goals, the state must allocate funds to reduce average class size by two students per year.

As a point of comparison, Miami-Dade County, Florida's largest school district, had average class sizes in 2000-01 of 24.7 students in elementary schools, 28.4 in middle schools and 27.8 in high schools, according to the Florida School Boards Association. Broward County, the state's second largest and one of the nation's fastest growing, had average class sizes of 26.6 students in elementary grades, 29.5 in middle grades and 32.3 in high school.

Initially, Florida leaders plan to focus their reduction efforts on primary grades. Education officials say the state would need about $628 million in the coming year to hire the 7,800 additional teachers needed to reach that goal. That amount doesn't include what needs to be spent to provide additional facilities.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

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