Education Opinion

One Size Does Not Fit All

By Chester E. Finn Jr. & Michael J. Petrilli — January 01, 1999 6 min read

Why not? Certainly, conventional wisdom says that class-size reduction is a win-win for teachers, students, and parents. But there’s scant research to show that it helps students learn more. And there’s good reason to be skeptical of anything handed down from the state as a cure-all for schools. As we’ve learned time and again, every school is different, and no one thing can cure them all.

It will, of course, be hard to resist the urge to spend money to reduce class size. It is the perfect political issue for the late ‘90s. With our booming economy, state and federal coffers are brimming, and Fat City on the fiscal front means politicians have something of a free hand to indulge in popular-but-costly projects. Polls, meanwhile, suggest that education is now the number-one domestic issue, a fact that means politicians of every stripe say they care about education--deeply.

Unlike vouchers, charter schools, teacher testing, and other controversial reform strategies, proposals to cut class size have intuitive and nearly universal appeal. Almost nobody is opposed. Parents assume that their children will get more attention with fewer classmates, and teachers believe that it gives them a shot at creating true learning communities.

A number of politicians have tapped this appeal recently and reaped big gains. California’s outgoing Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was hailed when he earmarked a big chunk of the state’s 1996 budget surplus to put more teachers in the primary grades. That same year, Republican James Gilmore rode to victory in the Virginia governor’s race on a platform that called for hiring 4,000 new teachers over four years.

Naturally, Democrats and Republicans fell over each other in the 1998 campaigns making similar promises. And last fall, President Clinton persuaded Congress to hire 100,000 new teachers at federal expense. Similar proposals now await legislative action in many states.

But like most nostrums that whip through the education-policy arena, class-size reduction is based more on hype than on research. We simply don’t know whether cutting class size across the board leads to higher student achievement. A much-touted study in Tennessee called STAR suggests that smaller kindergarten classes are beneficial. But gains from shrinking classes in later grades are hard to find in STAR. And virtually every other study finds little to no achievement boost in smaller classes. Some researchers note that this isn’t surprising, since many teachers run classes of 22 kids no differently than classes of 26.

Moreover, we’ve been shrinking American primary and secondary classes for decades, with no commensurate gains in learning. Today’s national average of 22 kids per classroom is down from 30-plus in the 1950s, at an immense cost to the country. Yet educational outcomes have remained flat--or worse.

Cutting class size is not necessarily a mistake, and we can’t fault schools for welcoming new funds and additional staff. But unintended consequences abound when states mandate something for all schools. When Wilson shrank California’s primary classes, veteran teachers fled inner-city schools in droves, lured by the higher pay and cushier working conditions of suburban systems that suddenly had openings. This exodus forced city schools to hire unqualified teachers, threatening the one ingredient that researchers agree is the most important to a good education: teacher quality.

The real issue, then, is who should be making the class- size decision. Why set the maximum student-teacher ratio at the state or federal level? Why not let schools decide their own priorities and spend money as they see best?

Consider the story of Zavala Elementary School in Austin, Texas. As part of that city’s agreement to end busing in the late 1980s, Zavala and 15 other schools collected an extra $300,000 annually for eight years. All the schools plowed the new money into reducing class size, but Zavala did it with a twist. Because students’ reading skills were a chief concern, the Zavala staff in 1991 scaled back kindergarten and 1st grade classes to a ratio of 12 pupils per teacher. The upper grades were left with 25 students per teacher, but Zavala’s teachers hoped the intensive instruction in the early years would pay off. And it did: Within a few years, student scores on the state’s reading proficiency test soared. Test performance at most of the other schools, meanwhile, remained flat.

The Zavala story holds a lesson for boosters of state plans to reduce class size. A class-size reduction plan mandating a student-teacher ratio of no more than, say, 20 to 1, would have tied Zavala’s hands and killed its reform plans in the cradle.

Many states have recognized that when individual schools lose power, education suffers. They have been giving local educators greater flexibility and autonomy while holding them accountable for the bottom line: improved achievement.

But with class-size fever seems to come schizophrenia. Some of the same states that are moving to free schools from regulation are eagerly moving on proposals to dictate class size. Go figure.

Strange as it may seem, some schools given the opportunity to reduce class size might decide not to. Consider how charter schools have handled the issue. These new, independent public schools are held to high academic standards. If they don’t perform, they get shut down. But in return they enjoy great freedom to set the budget, hire faculty, select curriculum, and essentially govern themselves.

Not surprisingly, many charter schools make small classes a priority. After all, these schools must respond to the market, and many parents favor schools with small classes. But charters that spend their money on smaller classes must sacrifice something else--maybe the latest and greatest computers, a full-blown sports program, a high-tech science lab, or even higher staff salaries. And faced with such tough choices, some schools decide to eschew smaller classes for other priorities. The Pacific Rim Charter School in Boston, for example, has invested heavily in staff prep time. Teachers get two full hours a day to prepare lessons, engage in peer review, or do research. Other charters pour money into professional development, after-school programs, or technology.

What would you do? Imagine that your state gives each school a pot of money, say $240,000, with no strings attached. With that money, a 600- student, K-5 school with 25 students per class could hire six new teachers, spending about $40,000 annually on each, including salary and benefits. That would reduce each class in the school by five students.

But what else could your school do with that $240,000? Each teacher could receive a $10,000 raise or a $10,000 “scholarship” to take graduate courses in his or her subject. If students’ math skills were lagging, specialists could be hired to tackle the problem. Or maybe the school could be rewired for new computers and science-lab equipment. Or an after-school program could be launched for needy kids. The list goes on. But any of these ideas might boost achievement more than reducing class size by five students.

Here’s the key question: How can the school get the most bang for its buck, the most learning per dollar? If schools do that by shrinking classes, then we say “hurrah.” But cutting class size for its own sake is the sort of policy with sports-car appeal but not much under the hood. And that’s what’s wrong with statewide and national class-size reduction plans: They don’t demand results, they don’t allow for flexibility, they just force a one-size-fits-all approach on all schools. Simply put, they are bound to disappoint and leave everyone with a feeling not altogether different from the post-holiday blues.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as One Size Does Not Fit All