The North County Times (San Diego, CA)

Small classes may not be the answer

by Howard Fienberg and Kimberly Castro
February 10, 2001

Most people feel small class sizes improve student performance. A recent Field Poll found that 72 percent of Californians prefer class-size reduction as a target of additional state spending on education, with extension of the school year garnering only 24 percent.

But do small classes bring academic success? Reducing class size is the costliest method of school reform; other alternatives are available. Is class size reduction the cure for California's ailing school systems?

Teachers boast that smaller classes boost teacher-student relationships and one-on-one instruction, which improves academic performance. They are happier when they have fewer students, fewer conferences with parents, a drop in extracurricular demands and in the end, less work.

But researchers have found little to link smaller classes with higher achievement. Last summer, a study by the CSR Research Consortium, made up of institutions such as RAND and the American Institutes for Research, found that California students in classes of 20 or fewer performed marginally better than their counterparts. But California's effort to reduce class size is a work in progress, and the researchers cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

A 1989 John Hopkins report that reviewed 14 studies from around the country found that when classes were cut to 15 students, the resulting improvement was insignificant. On a 100-point test, students in smaller classes gained about 4 points.

More recently, University of Rochester economist Erik Hanushek reported, "In 277 statistical studies on class size and student achievement, only 15 percent showed a clear positive relationship. However, 13 percent actually showed a negative relationship, the rest having results that were not statistically significant."

So reducing class size has yielded no conclusive evidence on performance. While teachers, parents and policy-makers praise such a project, they do not realize that cutting class size can spawn lots of other problems.

There is not enough classroom space to go around: Closet space, day-care centers and libraries can end up being converted into extra classrooms.

Teaching methods, textbooks and lessons are unlikely to change when class size is reduced. The focus is still on the teacher. New research from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee found that achievement levels in smaller classes were higher than larger ones. However, students in small classes with conventional teaching methods, which emphasize basic skills and testing, performed much better than those in small classes whose methods emphasized critical thinking and independent activities. So the improved achievement could spring from how teachers take advantage of class size rather than size alone.

Smaller classes create more teaching positions. Unfortunately, there are indications the new teachers are less qualified than the old ones and are less likely to be certified. More harmfully, the neediest children from the lower-income districts are hurt when their veteran teachers leave for affluent districts with openings offering higher pay and better working conditions. This occurred in California when Gov. Pete Wilson reduced class size in primary schools throughout the state.

The drive to reduce class size is emotive, and makes intuitive sense. But there is not enough evidence of the desired effects. The CSR Consortium wants more time to study California's achievement in the K-3 grades, which have been the focus of the reductions. It might be a good idea to give it to them

Howard Fienberg is research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Kimberly Castro is a former research assistant there.

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