When It Comes To Class Size, Smaller Isn't Always Better

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Stew Milne / AP

Labor union members from Rhode Island rally in support of Wisconsin's public employees at the Statehouse in Providence, R.I.

Budget cuts! Layoffs! Bigger classes! Oh my! Given the mini-Wisconsins erupting around the country, it's not surprising that parents are worried about their children's schools. At least 45 states will face some budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins this July, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last week the school board of Providence, Rhode Island gave pink slips to the city's entire teaching force. Rumors of class sizes as large as 60 students circulated in Detroit.

Reality check: There will be teachers teaching in Providence next year. Similar sky-is-falling scenarios will be averted in Detroit and elsewhere, too. But that doesn't mean that there will not be fewer teachers—and larger classes—in many places when school opens this fall. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may well be right that scarce resources will be the "new normal" for schools.

The looming budget cuts are putting the question of class size front and center in local communities and the national education debate. A proposal to raise class sizes in Idaho by laying off more than 700 teachers led to protests around the state. Many other states and cities are considering changes to rules about class size.

Listening to the panic about class size, however, is like stepping back to a time when we knew nothing about whether reducing the head count in a classroom actually improved schools. But in fact, school districts, states, and even the federal government have been trying class size reduction as a school improvement strategy for years. In other words, as opposed to a lot of education ideas and proposals, class-size reduction actually has a track record. What that research tells us is this: Smaller classes are better, but only if the teacher is a very good one. In other words, class size matters, but teacher effectiveness matters more. That means that as a parent, you're better off with 28, 30, or maybe even more kids and a great teacher, than 24 or 22 and a mediocre one. What's more, to really make a difference smaller must mean much smaller. Fewer than 16, for instance. Even then the benefits are greatest in the early grades and for at-risk youngsters. Meanwhile, class size reduction is very expensive, so it doesn't always work from a cost/benefit analysis relative to other choices schools can make with scarce dollars.

As is too often the case in education, that research is almost completely at odds with current practice. Instead of lowering class size a lot for the students who most need it, school districts generally lower it a little for everyone. In a 2007 study for Education Sector, a think tank I co-founded, school finance expert Marguerite Roza estimated that this practice consumes about 2.26 percent of per-pupil spending annually. That doesn't sound like much,but across the country it adds up to billions every year.

So what should school districts do? For starters, we should stop thinking about class size in absolute terms. Across-the-board increases in class size may be easier politically because the pain is shared, but this approach is lousy policy. It's important to go small for some students, much smaller than we do today, but fine to actually go larger for others. School districts should also consider ways to innovate with technology, different schedules, and different classroom configurations. And of course it's long past time to get serious about teacher quality by making better decisions about hiring, evaluation, and tenure. More ambitious school districts could even reward teachers who can effectively teach a larger class.

For their part, parents should keep a few things in mind as well. Most importantly, the key finding that smaller classes are less important than the effectiveness of the teacher. Parents should also ask hard questions about how resource decisions are being made and based on what evidence. Across-the-board cuts don't make any more sense than across-the-board increases or decreases in class sizes. Parents should not be afraid to ask 'why?' when it appears that what's easiest for the adults may be getting in the way of what's in the best interest of the kids.

Forget the "tough love" rhetoric from some in the education reform community about how this new fiscal discipline will be good for schools. That's ridiculous. Even accounting for the increases in spending schools have enjoyed over the last few decades and the myriad inefficiencies in the system, today's cuts will create real challenges. Still, it is high time school systems started to think more creatively about issues such as class size and how resources are used. The public finance landscape is changing, schools need to as well.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.