The Great Class Size Debate

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 04, 2009 1 min read
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Washington Post veteran Jay Mathews dives into the great class-size reduction debate here (check out the thoughtful comments, too.) He points out that in the recession, many districts preserve class size and make cuts elsewhere, which may not be the most cost-effective solution.

The long-cited STAR study in Tennessee found lasting benefits from class size reduction, particularly for poor and minority students in grades K-1.

The problem, as Mathews alludes, is that most states and districts aren’t in a position to reproduce the stipulations in that study: class sizes between 14 and 17 students. So, the argument goes, should you reduce class sizes from 25 to 23 students, an option that’s more realistic for most districts—or use your money to make your existing teachers more effective?

This may seem like a very conceptual debate, but it’s actually a big tension that could arise in the reauthorization of the No Child law.

Edu-geeks may recall that President Clinton started a federal class-size reduction program that, in 2002, was folded into NCLB’s state teacher-quality grant program, Title II. (When that happened, lawmakers removed most of the Clinton-era quality-control stipulations, meaning such funds could be used to reduce classes in high school where there’s little research to support the intervention.)

The problem? Title II gets about $3 billion a year, and lawmakers are being asked to repurpose that money in ways other than class size reduction. (Think things like teacher evaluation, better professional development, and hiring practices.

Teachers’ unions, though, are strong proponents of maintaining federal class-size reduction funding.

So what will happen when reauthorization arises again? Good question.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.