School & District Management

Class Sizes Show Signs of Growing

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 24, 2010 8 min read
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After dropping for decades, average class sizes in American schools may be growing again as schools cope with budget shortfalls.

Although some educators see the rising numbers as a worrisome trend, others see an opportunity for innovation.

“Yes, small class sizes do help, but it’s not the only way. What we need to focus on is how schools are becoming more flexible to meet the different needs of kids,” said Thomas Starratt, the principal of Boynton Middle School in New Ipswich, N.H., where the average class size at the school has crept up from 18 to 22 since the recent economic recession took its toll.

The national ratio of students to their teachers fell between 1980 and 2008, from 17.6 to 15.8 students per public school teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Because the statistics count special education and other specialized teachers who normally have much smaller classes than regular teachers do, the U.S. Department of Education estimates the current average class size at more like 25 students. That number is likely to rise, given states’ and districts’ financial constraints, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last month at a Washington forum.

Nearly all the states that have changed their class-size laws since 2008 have relaxed restrictions, in many cases specifically to ease districts’ budget burdens, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“I anticipate that a number of districts may be asked next year to weigh targeted class-size increases against the loss of music, arts, and after-school programming,” Mr. Duncan said at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute meeting. “It’s difficult to talk about class size, … but we owe it to the country’s children to have those conversations. … We support shifting away from class-size-based reduction that is not evidence-based.”

Remove to Improve

Yet what constitutes “evidence-based” reduction has been at the crux of the class-size debate for more than a quarter-century. Proponents of reducing class size argue that it is the simplest, most direct way to improve student achievement, while skeptics argue that the small, generalized reductions that result from most state policies don’t provide enough improvement to justify their cost.

Most education researchers agree on the importance of one “gold standard” study: Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, project, a four-year, longitudinal, randomized controlled study that began in 1984 and tracked more than 7,000 students in 79 schools. Researchers compared the achievement of pupils in kindergarten through grade 3 who were randomly assigned to small classes, of 13 to 17 children, or to regular classes, of 22 to 25 with either a teacher alone or a teacher with a full-time aide.

At the end of the first study on the project, researchers found children in the smaller classes performed a tenth of a standard deviation better than youngsters in either of the regular-size classes, a significant improvement; poor and minority pupils showed greater effects. Follow-up studies through the years have found the students who had been in small classes in their early years had better academic and personal outcomes throughout their school years and beyond.

Interactive Map

A majority of states have at least one policy that limits the number of students that may be in a general education classroom, according to the Education Commission of the States, and several have relaxed those class-size policies since 2008.


SOURCES: Education Commission of the States; Education Week Library Director Kathryn Dorko and Library Intern Ruth Lincoln

“The kids are almost 30, and we have been able to get some of their life outcomes,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and one of the researchers on Project STAR follow-up studies.

“We do find they do better on all these life measures; they go to college at a higher rate, they get married, they buy houses at a higher rate.”

Ms. Schanzenbach and STAR principal investigator Helen Bain say over time, STAR and other studies have shown the improvement is linear: Every student removed from class improves the outcomes for those remaining.

By the same token, attempts in other states, such as California and Florida, to replicate Tennessee’s success have yielded more mixed research findings.

As a result, while class size has remained popular with parents and teachers, it has gained critics among some researchers and policymakers. The federal class-size-reduction program, which had provided more than $4 billion in the 1990s, was eliminated from the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Critics argue most class-size-reduction programs are too general, and improvements aren’t substantial enough, to balance the cost of shrinking class sizes, which is one of the most expensive education improvement strategies. For example, Florida estimates its class-size program, which state voters decided Nov. 2 to keep in place, will cost $40 billion in the next decade.

Secretary Duncan pointed to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group representing major industrialized countries, showing that several high-performing Asian countries have higher average class sizes: 33 in Japan and 36 in South Korea, compared with the estimated 25 students in the United States.

“I think all else being equal, smaller classes are better, and Tennessee STAR shows the potential impact of class sizes,” said Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, who has studied the issue. “The problem is all else is not equal most of the time.”

Part of the difficulty, Mr. Goldhaber said, is that states haven’t implemented class-size-reduction policies in ways that are consistent with the research. For instance, they often trim one or two students per class, rather than cut classes down to 13 to 17 students, as Tennessee schools did.

Other researchers, such as Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, have argued schools should spend money to improve their current teachers, rather than hiring more of them.

That sentiment was echoed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a co-chairman of the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a talk last month to state education chiefs gathered in Louisville, Ky.

“It’s just another thing that has to be looked at, because we have to free some money up for the things that really do work,” Mr. Gates said.

Mr. Duncan urged schools to use tightening budgets as an opportunity to experiment with “modest but smartly targeted increases in class size,” such as varying class sizes by teacher expertise or bringing in part-time staff members to reduce class sizes in core areas.

‘All Hands on Deck’

Many schools already have begun such efforts. The New American Academy, which opened this fall in New York City, might look like a nightmare to class-size-reduction advocates: Instead of four 1st grade classes with 15 pupils each, 60 learn together in a class with four teachers.

“You need to commit to it fully,” said Nick Ackerman, the academy’s communication director. “If you don’t buy into that, 40 to 60 kids in a classroom is going to be chaos.”

Each class is assigned two general and two special education teachers, each of whom is bilingual and at least one of whom is a master teacher. Each team gets an hour and a half to plan at the start of each day and can change groupings with the flow of the content—large groups for reading together, small teams moving among stations for projects, and so on. The teachers train for five weeks before school starts, and they progress with their children from kindergarten through 5th grade. Salaries for individual teachers range from $50,000 for a novice to $120,000 for a master teacher.

The school saves money overall, Mr. Ackerman said, because it does not have to hire separate specialists for students with special educational needs.

Other schools have created more-flexible class groupings by enlisting more instructors and volunteers to reduce the size of core classes.

New York’s Generation Schools Network, for example, hired instructors who also run most of the administration. In the morning, nearly every adult in the building teaches 90-minute blocks of reading, math, science, social studies, and foreign language. The afternoon includes electives with larger class sizes that build on topics from the morning, such as an art class that incorporates geometry.

“By having this all-hands-on-deck approach in the morning. We get class sizes below that magic number of 16 that the Tennessee STAR study says is really good for student achievement,” said Generation Schools co-founder Jonathan Spear. He said that the school costs slightly less than other New York City peers, but “we’re able to reduce the teacher load, so teachers are teaching less than 50 kids at a time.”

Getting By With More

Some schools have purposely traded smaller class sizes for other reform ideas. Codington Elementary School in Wilmington, N.C., didn’t ask for enrollment increases or budget cuts, according to Principal Budd A. Dingwall, but it did find a way to make larger class sizes work for the school. Because North Carolina provides personnel funding based on the student-teacher ratio, not class size, Mr. Dingwall allowed class sizes to max out at 24 pupils in grades K-3 and at 26 in grades 4 and 5, and created a floating position for a master teacher, who can help individual teachers.

In the meantime, classroom teachers each get an aide and a trained parent volunteer to help shoulder the load.

“The combination of the economic crisis and the [federal] stimulus [aid] has forced a lot of us to take a look at our practices,” said Shawn Arévalo McCollough, the superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District in Arizona. Class sizes there have grown from 18 to 20 students three years ago to 28 to 30 today.

Yet, Mr. McCollough said, the district has raised test scores every year. He notes that the district added more math and reading specialists as class sizes rose.

“If you are spending the money and you’re not getting results,” he said, “then cutting those dollars and redeploying them in more-effective ways is the morally and professionally responsible thing we’ve got to do for kids.”

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the New York City advocacy group Class Size Matters, said, however, that districts should implement small classes properly—at 15 students per teacher—before writing the approach off to try out other changes.

“I have no doubt the increase in class size we are experiencing in New York and California and other states will have an extremely damaging effect on students,” she said, “not only in achievement, but in their later success in life.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Class-Size Limits Targeted for Cuts


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