According to recent reporting by The Frederick News-Post (“Reducing class size number one priority” published Dec. 5, 2019), many parents and community members believe spending money to reduce class sizes should be the school system’s highest priority. As often happens in politics, research suggests that the politically popular option is unlikely to have a positive impact. Most of the public conversation hasn’t mentioned class size reduction’s many disadvantages.
Research on reducing class sizes is mixed at best. Alan Krueger’s analysis of Tennessee’s class-size reductions found positive effects equivalent to three additional months of schooling after four years of spending. These effects were found for large reductions in class sizes (from 22 students down to 15) in early elementary school, but not in other grades. Christopher Jepsen and Steven Ibsen’s analysis of California’s K-3 class size reduction initiative found a smaller positive effect equal to a month and a half more of schooling. Caroline Hoxby’s analysis of Connecticut’s class size differences found no relationship between class size and achievement in fourth and sixth grades, which should have reflected the impact of smaller classes in the previous grades. Matthew Chingos found that Florida’s class size reduction had no impact on test scores in grades three through eight. That program cost $20 billion in its first eight years and $4 billion to $5 billion every year after.
The take away from this research is that targeted class size reductions in the early elementary grades, specifically kindergarten, are the most likely to be effective. Across-the-board reductions are not cost effective, and have negative impacts. Hiring more teachers reduces teacher quality, since school districts have to dip deeper into the applicant pool and hire less-qualified candidates. Teacher salaries will tend to fall along with class sizes, since districts must divide the funding allocated for salaries across more employees. Districts that want to prioritize both salaries and class size will have to reduce funding in other areas such as curriculum materials or office supplies. Smaller classes require more classrooms, which means the construction budget will have to increase as well.
Parents like the idea of smaller classes because they believe it will result in more personal attention for their children, but some quick math shows this doesn’t make sense. Even if a teacher wanted to spend an entire 45-minute class period giving students individual attention, with 23 students, each student would receive about two minutes of time. Reducing class size down to 17 per class would increase that time by only 39 seconds. Keep in mind that Frederick County isn’t considering reducing class sizes by that much, so the impact on personal attention would be even lower here.
Understandably, the teachers union will always support class size reductions, since doing so increases their membership and political power and reduces teachers’ workload. Most American teachers believe that smaller classes will help them be more effective. Asian countries that outperform the United States in international comparisons have substantially larger class sizes than America’s average of 23, with Japan at 36, Taiwan at 44 and South Korea at 49, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These countries tend to focus more on teacher quality than quantity.
In her book, “Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics,” Liping Ma found that Chinese teachers have greater competence in math and better ability to teach it than American teachers. Multiple studies have found that most American teachers don’t understand scientifically based reading instruction, and the National Council for Teacher Quality found that “Only 5 percent of the 875 [teacher preparation] programs evaluated ensure that aspiring elementary teachers know the science, history and geography, and literature and composition content they will teach.”
Parents and district officials ought to reconsider making class size reduction a higher priority than having competitively paid, well-prepared teachers. Ensuring that every child is taught by a teacher who understands their subject and proven methods of instruction requires different spending priorities. Since most education schools haven’t been willing or able to improve their preparation programs, FCPS will need to invest heavily in training to make up for the many gaps these programs leave. They’ll also need to fund targeted salary increases to attract more candidates in hard-to-staff subject areas such as science, technology and special education, which the teachers union opposes. Doing this requires accepting some hard truths about teacher preparation and contending with the union, so it’s no wonder that class size reduction, which requires no such admission or contract negotiation, remains popular despite its high cost and lack of evidence.