Posted by: Ticktock | May 8, 2008

The Politics of Reduced Class Size


Reducing class size seems to be a no-brainer.  The smaller the student to teacher ratio, the more time there is for quality instruction and teacher-student interaction.  But, the issue is quite complex, and suffers from bias from both sides of the debate.  Schools don’t want to be forced into increasing their budgets to hire more teachers.  Teachers, of course, don’t want to be saddled with heavy class loads.  No matter what your bias may be, the answer may be complicated enough that either side could argue their point based on the available evidence, which I will examine in this very post.

The most prominent and widely quoted study on class size belongs to Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), a Tennessee longitudinal study of 11,000 elementary students.  The STAR program showed a positive increase in test scores (most notably in early elementary).  It recommended certain conditions to achieving the benefits of smaller classes:  adequate supply of new teachers, sufficient classroom space, a representative student mix in each class, and teacher access to materials and services.

What is not typically mentioned is that the STAR study was not done blind.  All the teachers knew that their classroom progress was being analyzed and recorded.  These teachers had a clear bias to adjust their teaching effort to pad the data; teachers overwhelmingly prefer smaller classes for obvious reasons.   These educators knew that the whole world would be watching and that if the results weren’t positive, the legislature would not fund the smaller classes. 

The STAR study said that a student graduating from high school after attending smaller-sized classes would gain an average of 1.7 quality-adjusted life-years and generate a net $168,431 in lifetime revenue.  This type of statistical estimate is really counter-productive and wildly irresponsible.  This shows an interperative bias that is meant to change opinion and engage people politically, not reflect fact.  Closer scrutiny of the STAR program data shows that benefits were statistically modest- two one hundreths of a standard deviation with a 10% decrease in class size.  Any benefit that the children showed in earlier grades did not carry on as they got older.

Spyros Konstantopoulos of Northwestern University recently examined the STAR study with more scrutiny and found that smaller classes failed to negate the gap between high achievers and slackers.  His results, published in Elementary School Journal, indicated that smaller classes seemed to increase the divide between those students who are naturally more engaged in schoolwork and those who are less motivated.  But, his analysis didn’t contradict the study’s core assessment that small classes benefit academic progress.

The STAR study also revealed that free-lunch students performed poorly compared to wealthier students across the board, regardless of class size or grade.   This indicates that smaller classes didn’t improve the significant difference between the scores of rich and poor.  However, inner-city (predominantly minority) students in small classes always outscored inner-city students in larger classes, an indication that small classes may be better for minorities.

London University’s Institute of Education  did a small-class-size study of more than 10,000 children in more than 300 state schools that suggests that smaller classes may aggrevate social relationships and peer groups, but will indeed improve academic scores.  This study is important because, unlike the STAR program from decades ago, these results are more current and, as a result, more relevant.  Unfortunately, the fact that the study is based in Europe means that the results are less useful when applied to the U.S. school system.

A recent international study presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association proved that the benefits of small class size are not restricted to U.S. schools.  It didn’t matter whether the students were in the U.S., Switzerland, Hong Kong, or England, the results showed a benefit to smaller classes.  Analysis of the data revealed that the progress was due to the students’ perceptions of a difference and not to actual changes in the way teacher’s handled a smaller class.  It seems that the teachers had a hard time adjusting to fewer students, and that everyone would benefit if the teachers would only adapt their teaching styles to reflect the reduced class size.

Tommy Tomlinson and Erik Hanushek have both been vocal opponents to the reduction of class sizes.  Their arguments are that reducing class size does not benefit the kids enough to justify the increase in expenses (A 10 percent reduction in class size typically costs about $850 per year per student) and that actual pupil-teacher rate reduction has not shown a correlating increase in test scores.  Tomlinson points to a time between 1965 and 1975 when both class sizes and test scores dropped significantly, showing that class size does not always correlate to better scores.  He also points to evidence from comparisons to larger classes in academically prosperous Japan that class size is not a determining factor for achievement in the classroom.  However, he may be too dismissive of significant cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.

Japan seems to have the largest class size of all; the maximum number of students in one classroom can be up to 50 children.  Japanese pre-school teachers indicate that large classes are a benefit because they encourage “pampered” children to become responsible members of a larger unit.  Japanese students, as they get older, aren’t so keen on being in large classes, but their high test scores disprove theories that smaller classes lead to smarter kids.

Yvan Guillemette of the Howe Institute in Canada is also firmly against the emphasis on reduced class size, pointing to a lack of supporting evidence from Canadian research on the subject.  He thinks that the reason smaller classes may not benefit the students is that it forces the schools to hire more teachers and lower their standards for quality educators.

Caroline Minter Hoxby of Harvard University did research on class size in Connecticut over a 20 year period and found that there was “no effect of class size on achievement at all, even when children were in small classes for all six years of elementary school”.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this debate.  My time parenting prevents me from digging deeper into this controversy, but my final thought is that this argument has little to do with academics and more to do with convenience and school district politics.  If opinion is being swayed by the STAR program from the 1980s, people need to be aware that this program has been exxagerated and over-emphasized.  On the other hand, if school systems are judging their decision on the skeptics, they should take a closer look at the recent positive study in the UK.  I think once all the facts are examined carefully without agenda or bias, a decision for class size can be made in the interest of the children… not politics.


  1. […] last night.  She suggested that more of the budget be dedicated to small class size, which I have shown is not a simplistic answer to boosting grades.  She will be answering questions, along with Tom […]

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