Conventional wisdom suggests that students perform better when they are enrolled in smaller classes. But new research and advocacy groups suggest that targeted resizing of classes—including increasing class sizes in certain subjects—can save districts money while minimally impacting student achievement.
Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization that researches educational budgeting, estimates that up to $6 billion could be saved nationally by increasing class sizes by just one student. Currently, more than 80 percent of education spending is used on compensation, according to the organization. A report released in May by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, states that the same move would reduce the number of teachers necessary by approximately 7 percent.
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Class-size legislation has remained an important political issue in many states. At least 24 states have enacted class-size laws that limit enrollment. Karen Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, says these laws can hurt students in the long term. Important programs like teacher development classes and extracurricular activities have been cut in order to employ enough teachers to keep class sizes low, she says. Districts in Florida have hired teachers for a year, knowing those teachers would have to be laid off, she says.
"We're subjecting these kids to brand new teachers every year," Miles says. She argues that districts need to think about implementing class size "trade-offs" that could improve education. Increasing enrollment in certain electives might allow some core classes, such as ninth grade English, to have fewer students, she says.
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Others, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have come around to her way of thinking. In a March letter to governors weighing state budget cuts, he wrote that states should use federal money in a way that would have the "greatest positive impact on students." Among his suggestions were "targeted adjustments in class size, and compensation models that reward the best, most effective work."
In a March call with the media about the letter, Duncan expanded on his thoughts: "If I was asked a question, 'You can have an extraordinary teacher, but have 28 children in your class, or you could have a mediocre teacher with 23 children in your class,' as a parent, I would take the higher class size every day of the week," he said.
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Research shows that drastic class size reduction can improve student performance. The most widely cited research, the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio study conducted in the late 1980s by the state of Tennessee, showed that when class sizes were reduced from 22 students to 15 students, student achievement increased by about three months of additional schooling. Subsequent studies have shown that slight increases or decreases in class size enrollment have negligible effects on student achievement.
The May Brookings report says, "It appears that very large class-size reductions, on the order of magnitude of 7-10 fewer students per class, can have significant long-term effects on student achievement … These effects seem to be largest when introduced in the earliest grades, and for students from less advantaged family backgrounds."
Miles, from Education Resource Strategies, stresses that schools and districts need a strategy when it comes to changing class enrollment. If class sizes are increased, the money saved should be spent training effective teachers. She says schools should experiment with hiring part-time experts to teach reading in small groups. If there are three third-grade classes in a school, for instance, those classes could be combined for part of the day in classes such as art.
"The highest performing schools are thinking really differently about group size and how teachers are grouped together throughout the day," she says.
Enrollment reductions should be focused on underprivileged students and young students, she adds. Better teacher evaluation systems need to be developed and implemented so that ineffective teachers can be held accountable for student performance, and effective teachers can be rewarded.
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Miles acknowledges that class sizes are a hot-button issue with parents nationwide. "It's an incredible lighting rod," she says. "Parents like small classes. Class size is the one thing that parents can objectively count—they'll say, 'What is my class size?' It seems like good politics to mandate these class sizes."