ETS Study Supports Value of Smaller Classes

By Bess Keller — August 06, 1997 3 min read

When Harold Wenglinsky set out to study school spending for the Educational Testing Service, he thought he was contributing to the ongoing debate over the links between spending and achievement.

Instead, his research put him squarely in he middle of another perennial controversy: whether smaller class sizes mean better learning.

The answer, says Mr. Wenglinsky, a researcher at the ETS Policy Information Center in Princeton, N.J., is yes. “It is the clear indicator for high achievement,” he said.

He drew that conclusion in a roundabout sort of way: School districts that put more money into instruction and central administration end up with smaller classes. Smaller classes in turn, are linked to higher math achievement.

Therefore, the ETS report says, school spending that results in smaller classes is good for achievement.

“The research looked at which investments work and why they work, and which don’t” across the nation, said Mr. Wenglinsky, whose report, “When Money Matters,” was released in May.

Other kinds of spending--on keeping up school buildings, on administration at the school level, and on hiring teachers with advanced degrees--have little influence on math achievement, he found.

Mr. Wenglinsky used math scores of 4th and 8th graders from the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress and other information on teachers, students, schools, and districts. His analysis sought to control for the effects of district wealth and students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.

The study refutes the notion that conventional spending does not significantly affect achievement, according to Mr. Wenglinsky.

That idea, championed by conservatives who advocate curbing increases in school spending, gained newfound prominence through a 1994 study by University of Rochester economist Eric A. Hanushek. But other researchers who, like Mr. Hanushek, analyzed decade of studies on the matter, have come to the opposite conclusions, leading to a debate that has played out on the pages of education journal in recent years. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

Mr. Hanushek said last week that he remains unconvinced that additional spending payoff in higher achievement. “We don’t know if we should spend more or less right now. We know we are spending it badly.”

The Best Investment

Mr. Wenglinsky countered that educators and policymakers should not ignore his findings. “There are some conventional ways that money is spent that do some good,” he said, “and these ways shouldn’t be abandoned.”

At the same time, he added, spending targeted directly to reducing class size could be the best investment of all.

Researchers have reached different conclusions about the effects of class size on learning. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

But policymakers in a number of states, notably California, have embraced smaller classes in at least the early grades as a route to higher achievement.

Lower class size boosts achievement in somewhat different ways for 8th graders than for 4th graders, Mr. Wenglinsky believes. In 4th grade, lower student-teacher ratios appear to give students a direct academic boost. In 8th grade, he found, smaller classes improve the school’s social environment, reducing barriers to higher achievement such as disruptive students and teacher who are frequently absent.

The largest gains from reducing class size were found among poor students who were living in high-cost areas.

Fourth graders in smaller-than-average classes are about six months ahead of their counterparts in larger-than-average classes, according to the research.

Surprise Finding

Increased spending on instruction leads to smaller class sizes because districts tend to hire more classroom teachers with that money, the report says.

But Mr. Wenglinsky said the effect of central-office spending on class size is more puzzling. While the research itself did not show why the two were linked, he surmised that superintendents with larger staffs could find more ways of saving money that could then be used to hire teachers.

Central-office spending, which in Mr. Wenglinsky’s analysis does not include money earmarked for services such as transportation and lunch, generally accounts for just 3 percent to 6 percent of a district’s budget.

Other researchers cast doubt on central-office spending as a worthwhile approach to raising student achievement.

“I wouldn’t recommend to anyone arbitrarily increasing central administration thinking they’ll get higher achievement,” said Robert Berne, a school finance expert who has taught administrators at New York University.

Massive studies that ask whether money matters are “at one level chasing the obvious,” Mr. Berne said. “When resources are spent well, they make a difference; when they are spent poorly, they do not.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week