Federal Study Will Put Price Tag on Class-Size Reduction

April 28, 1999 2 min read


A nationwide push to reduce class sizes in the primary grades to 18 students could cost up to $6 billion a year, a forthcoming federal study concludes.

The study, conducted for the government by the American Institutes of Research and the RAND Corp., is still being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education. But the researchers who led the project released some of the findings here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

In recent years, leading state and national policymakers--including President Clinton--have stepped up calls for smaller classes. Efforts are under way in California, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and other states to lower the number of pupils per teacher in at least grades 1-3.

But Thomas B. Parrish, the lead investigator on the study for the Washington-based AIR, points out that the expense of creating smaller classes may come at a bad time. Just keeping pace with rising enrollments over the next decade will cost the nation $30 billion, he estimated.

The researchers did not quibble with studies showing that a reduction in class size can produce better learning gains.

But “whether it is the most cost-effective approach to producing better high school graduates--the ultimate goal of our educational system--has not been tested and is not known,” Mr. Parrish said.

Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. made headlines a few years ago after the test scores of some of the Baltimore schools using the private company’s tutoring program began to climb. But a closer look at the program’s early successes in that city shows the results were more of a mixed bag, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University there.

Sylvan’s services are now being used in more than 100 school systems nationwide, but Baltimore schools were the first to contract with the company in 1993, said Martha Abele MacIver, the Johns Hopkins researcher who led the study. She said the researchers looked at the Baltimore-based company’s services in seven elementary schools and one middle school.

During a conference session here last week, Ms. Mac Iver said the researchers found the Sylvan rooms to be “an oasis of order and cheer and contentment in what was often a chaotic school.”

But when the researchers compared the test scores of Sylvan pupils with those of a control group of students who were matched with them in demographics and achievement, they found that the Sylvan programs only seemed to be making a difference in mathematics. In reading, the Sylvan pupils looked no different from their counterparts in the control group--at least in the first two years of the program, according to Ms. Mac Iver.

But a principal of one of the Baltimore schools using the program offered a different interpretation. Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the principal of the city’s Arnett J. Brown Middle School and Southside Academy and the former principal of an elementary school that used the program, said that teachers early on viewed the Sylvan programs as a threat. But since that first rocky start, the principal said, the company has compiled a remarkable track record in the schools where she has worked.

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Federal Study Will Put Price Tag on Class-Size Reduction