Smaller Class Size No Magic Bullet

Sunday, January 30, 2000

The notion that smaller classes would make better classes is a deeply held article of faith in American political and policy circles. But are smaller classes really more effective? Not necessarily.

President Clinton has long made "100,000 new teachers" the mantra of his education policy. Even congressional Republicans, presumably the guardians of federalism, have followed suit. The centerpiece of their education legislation—the Teacher Empowerment Act—would require local school districts to spend a portion of their federal booty on reducing class sizes. Politically popular, class-size reductions are especially welcomed by teachers (like myself) for two reasons. First, smaller classes mean smaller workloads. Second, smaller classes mean higher demand for teachers, resulting in more jobs and higher pay.

The states have not waited for Washington’s lead. Pressured by teachers and parents, California embarked on an ambitious effort to cut class sizes from kindergarten through third grade to no more than twenty students per teacher. Although the two major parties differ on the details, few politicians have questioned the underlying assumption that reductions in class size are a cost-effective way to improve educational outcomes. As President Clinton proclaimed last June, "We know smaller classes will help [children] succeed in school." But do we know that? Are there better ways to get good results?

A multitude of studies on these very questions have come up with mixed findings. Some find positive effects of reductions in class size. Others, which compare Catholic schools with public schools, find that students in the parochial classes do better despite their larger class size.

It is more effective to have a good teacher in a large class than a poor teacher in a small one.

In a study that I recently completed for the Hoover Institution and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, I reconciled these seemingly contradictory findings. I began by noting that better students tend to be found in larger classes because schools adjust class size to student behavior. One obvious example is that preschool classes are smaller than large lectures for college students. Advanced placement classes, full of attentive students, are larger than classes for students with learning disabilities. The larger classes, such as those found in Catholic schools, are also associated with better educational outcomes, not because larger classes are better but because they have more attentive students.

As a result, reductions in class size can have beneficial effects, but the gains are likely to be small for most students. I estimate that reducing class size from thirty students to California’s target of twenty would increase average educational performance by only 4 percent—but would cost 30 percent more. The best evidence suggests that small classes improve educational outcomes the most for disadvantaged and special-needs children. A few researchers, most notably Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester, have found that teacher quality is the most important variable in determining educational outcomes for the typical school.

Despite its flaws, American education is not the abject failure often portrayed.

The Catholic school–public school comparison offers another lesson: Class size is less important than classroom discipline and etiquette. A classroom disrupted by a few misbehaving, unruly individuals cannot produce much learning, even if the majority of students are anxious to learn. Data from Tennessee point to the conclusion that, when class-size reductions are beneficial, it is because the number of children are limited who must be exposed to a child’s disruptive behavior. Reducing class size is only one way to limit the effects of disruptive behavior. Even an incremental improvement in discipline can make a vast difference for an entire class. Classrooms full of motivated learners, governed by appropriate classroom etiquette, can be both crowded and productive.

What overall lessons can we draw from these findings?

First, blanket policies of class-size reduction are inefficient and wasteful. A targeted approach would be best. Schools that have disadvantaged or many special-needs children might want class-size reductions, whereas other schools might be better off allocating their funds in other ways. Second, the primary theme of education reform should not be class-size reduction. Instead, the focus should be on improving teacher quality. A good teacher in a large class is more effective than a poor teacher in a small one. Stricter hiring and promotion standards for teachers should be coupled with higher teacher salaries.

American education is not the abject failure it is often portrayed to be. We succeed well at the top, producing the majority of the world's intellectual leaders, in part because U.S. higher education leads the world. The problem comes not for the top half of students but for those who are not well served by our educational system. It is wasteful to spend money on all students when the greater benefits of class-size reduction only accrue to disadvantaged or special-needs children. Rather, society should reduce class sizes only for the children who need it most and look to other approaches for the rest of our students.