Last week the Center for American Progress released a report about class size reduction in schools and the false promise it holds for improving student achievement. While I am normally quite cautious about relying on anything CAP — a prominent left-wing think tank — produces, I’ve read the report, which is titled The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction. It’s accurate.
It’s quite astonishing to see CAP cite evidence from Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution and Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Hoover. These two researchers are usually condemned by the public education establishment and bureaucracy, including teachers unions. These are some of the key constituents CAP usually caters to.
In a nutshell, class size reduction produces very little benefit for students. (It benefits others greatly. More in a moment.) It’s also very expensive, and there are other things we should be doing instead if we really want to increase student achievement.
The report summarizes the important studies in class size reduction, and it’s accurate, based on the reading I’ve done over the years. The upshot is that there is only one study showing positive results from class size reduction, and that effect was found only among the early grades. The effect decreased after a few years, even though small class sizes were still used.
The report also notes that class size reduction is very expensive to implement. Because it is, the report says we should look to other ways to increase student achievement, such as policies relating to teacher effectiveness: “The emerging consensus that teacher effectiveness is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement suggests that teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation policies ought to rank high on the list.”
Recently the Kansas Policy Institute sponsored a trip to Wichita by Sandi Jacobs of National Council for Teacher Quality. My reporting of that event and an audio recording is at Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality. The importance of teacher quality is this: “In the example she illustrated, third graders who had teachers in the top 20 percent of effectiveness for the next three years went from the 50th percentile in performance to the 90th. For students with teachers in the lowest 20 percent for the same period, their performance dropped from the 50th percentile to the 37th percentile.” Kansas ranks below average among the states in its policies that promote teacher quality.
Who benefits from class size reduction?
If class size reduction doesn’t work, why is it so popular? The answer is it benefits many special interest groups. The first group is the parents who send their children to public schools. While class size reduction doesn’t help their children (except in limited circumstances), they think it does. Intuitively, it seems like small class size should help. More individual attention to their kids, the parents are told. And what parent doesn’t want the best for their child? This leads to an effective tactic that school spending supporters use: Any reduction in school funding, no matter how small, will cause class sizes to “explode” or “balloon” out of control, causing student achievement to “plummet.”
Then, there’s the teachers union. Small class size means more teachers and more union members. Fewer students means an easier job for teachers, too, with less papers to grade, etc. The unions also oppose nearly all the policies that would improve teacher quality. For example, this year the Kansas Legislature spent quite a bit of time on a policy where the period before teachers are awarded tenure could be increased from three to five years in certain circumstances. This is what qualifies as “school reform” in Kansas. Remember, Kansas ranks very low in policies that promote teacher quality. Tinkering with the policy on teacher tenure is not going to improve our teacher quality, as tenure is a system that ought to be eliminated. In Kansas the teachers union is Kansas National Education Association (KNEA).
Public school administrators benefit from class size reduction. With more classrooms and more employees, their budgets and power swell. In Wichita, one of the main reasons USD 259, the Wichita public school district gave for the necessity of passing a bond issue in 2008 was the need for more classrooms to implement class size reduction. Now progress is in a “pause and study” phase, as the district has realized that funding to run the new schools and classrooms on an ongoing basis may not be available. (The bond issue pays for construction, but not operation, of new schools and expansion of existing schools.)
Architects and construction companies. In my experience sitting in education committee hearing rooms in the Kansas statehouse, whenever there is any proposal that would reduce spending on school construction, a representative of architects is there to offer testimony in opposition. In the campaign for the Wichita school bond in 2008, an architectural firm headed the campaign, and construction companies contributed heavily. They also contribute to the campaign of school board candidates who are in favor of building more classrooms. Most of this is to support class size reduction, which is politically appealing, but we know doesn’t work. But the motivation of architects and construction companies is to build something, whether it is useful or not.
Politicians — liberals and most conservatives — promote small class sizes. Any politician who promotes policies other than small class size has to overcome the forces listed above. Therefore, most don’t try.
The rut we’re in
The perceived desirability of small class sizes by parents and politicians coupled with the powerful motivations of special interests like school administrators, teachers unions, and the construction industry have placed us in a rut. It’s going to be difficult to escape, and it’s refreshing to see the Center for American Progress on the right side of this issue.
The fact that such a well-known liberal think tank is promoting this issue provides a context other than the typical liberal vs. conservative dichotomy. We are now able to more clearly see the motivations of the special interests that benefit from high school spending and the incorrect evidence they rely on.
The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction
By Matthew M. Chingos, Center for American Progress
Class-size reduction, or CSR, is enormously popular with parents, teachers, and the public in general. The latest poll results indicate that 77 percent of Americans think that additional educational dollars should be spent on smaller classes rather than higher teacher salaries. Many parents believe that their children will benefit from more individualized attention in a smaller class and many teachers find smaller classes easier to manage. The pupil-teacher ratio is an easy statistic for the public to monitor as a measure of educational quality, especially before test-score data became widely available in the last decade. …
Parents, teachers, and policymakers have all embraced CSR as a strategy to improve the quality of public education. There is surprisingly little high-quality research, however, on the effects of class size on student achievement in the United States. The credible evidence that does exist is not consistent, and there are many low-quality studies with results all over the map.
Continue reading at The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction.