Smaller Doesn’t Mean Better
New York Post
December 3, 2007
by B. Jason Brooks
When Gov. Spitzer pledged to infuse $7 billion more in state funding to public schools over the next four years, he called on school districts getting the largest aid hikes to spend the new money on reforms proven to boost student achievement. But the usual suspects are pushing to water down accountability requirements and instead steer the billions in taxpayer funding to self-interested policies.
Among these efforts: the state and city teachers unions’ drive to require dramatic across-the-board reductions in class size.
Substantial research and ample real-life experiences show that mandating smaller class sizes does not yield greater student achievement. It does, of course, mean the hiring of thousands of new teachers – that is, new dues-paying members (and thus enhanced power) for the unions.
To see the futility of requiring smaller class sizes in order to boost student outcomes, consider the recommendations from the union-friendly Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). Its recent report, “A Seat of One’s Own,” calls for reducing the class size in more than 400 failing New York City schools to 20 students in K-5 classes, 23 students in grades six through eight, and 24 students in high school. This would mean the hiring of thousands of more teachers.
But CFE’s report glaringly ignores how reducing classes to these targets actually would help student achievement.
For starters, CFE fails to note that more than 15 percent of these failing schools already operate at the class sizes it prescribes. If smaller classes were the key to success, why do these schools continue to fail – year in, year out? Moreover, California has spent the last decade inadvertently proving the futility of CFE’s approach. The state has limited class sizes to 20 students, K-3, at a price tag of nearly $1.7 billion a year. The result? A growing gap in achievement between low-income students and their peers.
The costs went beyond the billions of taxpayer dollars wasted. The plan sent schools into a frenzy to create new classroom space, created an enormous demand for new teachers and has forced schools to hire unqualified individuals to fill the new spots. Students are shuffled between grades to help meet class-size quotas.
Research shows class-size least beneficial and most expensive education reforms that urban schools systems can attempt. Stanford economist Eric Hanuschek has found the relationship between class size and student performance to be inconsistent at best, noting that there is little difference in achievement between classes ranging from 15 to 35 students.
Meanwhile, some top-performing New York City schools are successful despite having large classes. Consider the acclaimed KIPP Academy Charter School, the highest-performing Bronx middle school for nearly a decade. It isn’t unusual to see 30 or more students in a KIPP classroom.
The keys to KIPP’s success include more “time on task” via a longer school day and year, wise use of test scores and other data in making decisions about instruction, high academic and behavioral expectations for all students – plus an outstanding principal and high-quality teachers who are not hemmed in by the central bureaucracy. Efforts to create small classes simply don’t exist.
Instead of reducing class sizes for what amounts to no justifiable reason, New York City could get a larger bang for its buck by spending more of its funds on the existing reforms that Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein are putting in place – including promoting competition through embracing widespread charter-school development, implementing a data system that helps schools analyze and track student performance over time, reducing social promotion and rooting out bad teachers and replacing them with good ones.
The spirit of Gov. Spitzer’s effort to tie increases in education spending to reforms accountable for academic achievement is right. But research and actual experience clearly show that cutting class sizes doesn’t do the job. If CFE really wants to help students, and not the unions, it should abandon the drive to waste the new billions in school funding: Drop the calls for smaller classes and instead push for reforms that work.
B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, an independent nonprofit education-reform organization based in Albany.