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Education Reporter

Clinton Demands $1.4 Billion to Reduce Class Size
Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Do smaller classes help?

WASHINGTON, DC - President Clinton jumped on the smaller class-size bandwagon in his 1998 State of the Union message. He proposed spending $12 billion to hire 100,000 new teachers over seven years to reduce class size to an average of 18 pupils in grades 1-3. Clinton's budget request for 1999 includes $1.4 billion for his class size reduction initiative for FY 2000. Legislators are courting the issue at both the state and federal levels.

Conventional wisdom says that smal-ler classes allow teachers to give students more individualized attention, exert greater control over their classes, and cover material faster and better. It is alleged that lower pupil-to-teacher ratios are especially beneficial in the early grades, and that improved test scores will follow.

Does research bear out the equation that class reduction = improved performance? Not according to findings by Eric Hanushek, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Rochester. Professor Hanushek reviewed 277 studies that measured improvements in academic achievement relative to class-size reduction. Most of the studies were inconclusive, but nearly as many found that lowering class size had a negative effect on performance as found a positive effect.

Hanushek found that pupil-teacher ratios declined 35% between 1950 and 1995 with no corresponding rise in test scores. "Existing evidence indicates that achievement for the typical student will be unaffected by instituting the types of class-size reductions that have been recently proposed or undertaken," he stated in a report on the results of his research. He concedes that, while achievement information for the entire period between 1950 and 1995 is not available, "the information that we have from 1970 for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that our 17-year-olds were performing roughly the same in 1996 as in 1970."

The study most often cited by proponents of reduced class size is Project STAR, which was initiated in 1985 in Tennessee by a university consortium and examined 7,000 students and teachers over a four-year period. Teachers and students were randomly assigned - some to smaller classes of about 15 students, others to "regular" classes of about 25 students, and the remainder to "regular" classes of 25 students with one teacher and one teacher's aide. While the study showed that students in the smaller classes performed substantially better than students in the larger classes, some researchers have assailed the results.

Project STAR showed significant learning gains among kindergartners, but these gains did not last. By the end of the 1st and 2nd grades, the advantage enjoyed by students in the smaller classes over their peers in the larger classes remained stagnant - it did not increase. The Feb. 18, 1998 edition of Education Week quoted an education professor at the University of California-Riverside as saying: "The assumption is that [smaller classes] are going to change the rate of learning. If so, then every year students who get ahead should get farther ahead."

Education Week also reported on a 15-school project in Austin, TX, that involved reducing class sizes "in varying degrees." Each school received $300,000 for the project, but "only two reported dramatic gains in student achievement as a result." These two schools were implementing other reforms at the same time, which raises the question of whether class size by itself makes any difference.

In Ohio, the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions reports that there were approximately four fewer students in the average classroom in 1997 than in 1978, a 22% reduction in student-teacher ratios. "Despite these smaller class sizes," notes the Institute's president, Richard C. Leonardi, J.D., "Ohio's graduation rates have declined and overall proficiency test scores have not improved."

International comparisons also do little to support the case for class-size reduction. Korean and Japanese 8th graders scored significantly higher on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) than U.S. students, but class sizes in those countries average 49 and 36 respectively.

At least 20 states have either implemented class size reduction programs or are planning to do so. According to School Board News, New York state lawmakers allocated $440 million in 1997 for the purpose of hiring extra teachers to reduce teacher-pupil ratios, and Tennessee's program cost approximately $600 million between 1991-96.

California's program is easily the most ambitious. The June 1998 issue of State Legislatures magazine reported that the cost of California's class-size reduction program will top $1.1 billion. The legislation establishing the program passed in 1996 with the enthusiastic backing of former Governor Pete Wilson, and it immediately created a need for 18,000 new classrooms and 26,000 new teachers. Every unused building was pressed into service, and portable classrooms were added. The legislature was forced to pass "emergency certification legislation" so that school districts could procure the needed teachers from a "reserve pool" of about 200,000 people with state teaching licenses. Estimates are that California will have to hire 250,000 additional teachers within the next decade.

Another key concern of educators and researchers who find no real merit in reducing class size is the inadequate number of qualified teachers available. Professor Hanushek maintains that "the quality of the teacher is much more important than class size." His research uncovered considerable evidence that "by far the largest differences in the impact of schools on student achievement relate to differences in the quality of teachers. We cannot rely on requirements for entry, but must switch to using actual performance in the classroom."

Some critics question whether the drive to reduce class size, which will require thousands of new teachers and result in thousands more union members, is really a political payoff to the teachers unions.

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